Member Item Pork Projects Called ‘Tip of the Iceberg’

| Media Coverage

Of the $52 million the Assembly has doled out this year from its declassified Community Projects Fund, Assemblyman Paul Tonko can take credit for but a modest slice, $130,000, which he has fed in morsels to fire departments, school districts, a cemetery association, and other groups in his Schenectady district.

Mr. Tonko’s gifts to his district didn’t end there, however. In late September, the Capital District YMCA boasted that Mr. Tonko, a Democrat, had secured a $1 million grant to help pay for a new building. Although the grant was more than seven times the size of Mr. Tonko’s share of the Community Projects Fund, even the most sharp-eyed fiscal analyst would be hard-pressed to spot it in the budget.

Buried among dozens of other capital projects totaling hundreds of millions of dollars, it’s listed on page 226 of a mammoth “clean-up” budget bill that lawmakers passed before heading home in late June. Despite being the sponsor of the grant, Mr. Tonko isn’t mentioned in the line item; neither is the recipient, the YMCA. The bill simply lists $2 million for “Schenectady Metroplex Redevelopment,” referring to the agency that handled the grant.

“Since it’s his project, folks know Paul asked for this,” a spokesman for the assemblyman, Tom Lynch, said. “He went to Ways and Means staff and the speaker to let them know it was important to him.”

The YMCA project is just one small example of pork barrel legislative spending that isn’t laid out in the budget but appropriated in lump sums that are locked away by the two men who control the Legislature, the Republican Senate majority leader, Joseph Bruno, and the Democratic Assembly speaker, Sheldon Silver. They have steered a fraction of the money to their members for district grants and are sitting on untold millions, possibly more than $1 billion.

One pot of money, the $200 million Community Projects Fund, most of which is split between the Assembly and the Senate as “member items,” has been the focus of much attention since a state judge ordered the two houses to release details on the sponsors and recipients of the tax-funded payouts.

Long hidden from view, the member items, which pay for equipment, grants, contracts, and services for a host of advocacy groups, clubs, universities, and other civic organizations, symbolized a lack of accountability and transparency in the annual budget process.

Their disclosure last week has offered insight into the clubby world of the Legislature and confirmed the dominance of Mr. Silver, who granted himself more money from the Assembly’s share than the combined amount doled out by the next eight biggest Assembly givers.

The released member item lists also showed how some Democratic allies of Mr. Silver, such as Deborah Glick, Ron Canestrari, and Peter Rivera, have seen their loyalty rewarded with meatier slices of the member item pie. (The Republican-led Senate has yet to release all of the data on its $85 million share of spending projects this year.)

The release of details on the $52 million allocated by the Assembly has opened the equivalent of a single door in a darkened mansion. Mystery surrounds a myriad of other pots of money, sources of state money and debt that dwarf the member items.

“Is there a large slush fund out there?” the director of the Manhattan Institute’s Empire Center, E.J. McMahon, said. “Yes, the member items are just the tip of the iceberg.”

One of these pots is a little-known lump-sum appropriation called the Community Capital Assistance Program, which has essentially functioned in the Assembly as a parallel member item program for capital projects.

Two times over the past five years, Mr. Silver has granted each of the more than 100 members of his conference $500,000 in capital debt financed by a state authority, sources said. Each member is supposed to pour half of the funds into an organization of his or her choosing and send the remainder to groups in $50,000 grants. Mr. Silver controls an unknown portion of CCAP money, which was last appropriated in 2004 in a $62.5 million chunk.

No one outside the Assembly leadership has a complete picture of how the CCAP money has been spent. The Hearst Corporation, which owns the Albany Times Union, did not demand the information be released in its lawsuit that forced the Legislature to disclose the community member item lists. A spokesman for Mr. Silver did not respond to a request for details on the capital fund.

Mr. Tonko’s YMCA grant was separate from CCAP. His money was part of a $603 million appropriation for economic development projects financed by state bonds. In some cases, such as a $1 million grant to the Bethel Woods Performing Arts Center, the destination of the money is evident. In cases such as Mr. Tonko’s, the identity of the beneficiary is less clear. Creating another secretive pot of money, Messrs. Bruno and Silver also set aside more than $78 million of the $603 million to dole out later.

The state comptroller’s office has said the state has accumulated $4.2 billion in debt for development projects. “Of this, $2.9 billion, or nearly 70 percent, is subject to a Memorandum of Understanding between the Legislature and the Executive, meaning a detailed allocation of these funds is not available for public scrutiny,” a comptroller’s report from June said.

There’s no telling how much money legislative leaders are hoarding. Money that isn’t spent is generally reauthorized in the next year’s budget, a tradition that can be halted by Governor-elect Spitzer. Lawmakers interviewed said they are assuming that the $33 million in member item money that has not been allocated will be moved to next year’s budget and controlled by Mr. Silver. Lawmakers interviewed said they could not offer even an estimate of the amount of unspent legislative grants controlled by Mr. Silver, but they said the funds could easily exceed hundreds of millions of dollars. The Institute for Competitive State Government has calculated that the state has yet to spend $1.5 billion of the capital pork debt that’s been appropriated.

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