Call it pig in a blanket. Gov. Cuomo and state legislative leaders have brought pork back big-time, wrapped in a dense layer of bureaucracy and with a side of alphabet-soup misdirection.
Last week, the state Public Authorities Control Board approved nearly $500 million in taxpayer-backed borrowing for a solar-panel factory that’s at the heart of a federal probe into Gov. Cuomo’s Buffalo Billion initiative.
It wasn’t the only dubious item rubber-stamped by the board’s three members, who are stand-ins for Cuomo, Assembly Speaker Carl Heastie and Senate Majority Leader John Flanagan. At the same meeting, the board cleared $210 million in new state bonding for the State and Municipal Facilities Program, also known as SAM. The bonds will be issued by the state Dormitory Authority (an all-purpose, off-budget borrowing machine for which the financing of actual college dorms is now a minor sideline).
SAM first appeared in the fiscal 2014 budget as a $385 million program to support local government and school capital needs, with no clear criteria for project selection. Since then, its lump-sum appropriation has been steadily increased to $1.5 billion — and the description of eligible purposes has been expanded to cover “economic development” projects that “create or retain jobs.” In Albany terms, just about anything.
Nearly 1,000 projects totaling $286 million are now lined up to receive funding. If you don’t live in the communities where they’re located, you’ll find a lot to question.
You might wonder why your tax dollars are needed to underwrite $500,000 worth of new trees, LED street lights and other amenities for ultra-affluent Great Neck.
Or why the town of Stony Point doesn’t pay for its own $75,000 dog park. Or why a state government slow to fund major regional transportation needs would commit $100,000 to build a skateboard park anywhere — much less in Albany, a city so broke it couldn’t balance its budget without a bailout from the governor this year.
The answer: When the Legislature dangles easy money in front of local pols, businesses and civic groups whip out their wish lists.
Out of the literally hundreds of projects promoted by Senate and Assembly members, virtually none would qualify as a true state-government priority.
In contrast to the Legislature’s small-bore approach, Cuomo is steering bigger chunks to mega-deals involving big financial bets on speculative high-tech investments. Of the $25 million that had been disbursed by SAM even before the PACB meeting, more than three-quarters had gone to projects connected to development subsidiaries of the State University Polytechnic Institute — whose contracting practices are now the subject of both state and federal investigations.
He’s also steering $25 million to the Empire Outlets mall on Staten Island, a $300 million retail development that’s getting a total of $50 million in state subsidies even though it’s on prime waterfront property.
All this is being spent with a notable lack of transparency, even by Albany standards.
As state Comptroller Thomas DiNapoli pointed out, recent state budgets have included “little or no detail regarding the process for allocating [SAM] funds, or the purposes for which such funds are to be used,” and “details on expenditures — purposes, recipients and other key factors — remain largely outside the State accounting system.”
What we do know: Many of the state and municipal projects funded by SAM also are subject to costly state contracting regulations, including a prevailing-wage mandate that gives a strong preference to union workers. So the program is actually doubly wasteful, ensuring the state over-spends on stuff it arguably shouldn’t be funding in the first place.
Before any more is spent, Cuomo and the Legislature should rethink their approach, repeal SAM and reallocate the funds to core needs, including a competitive grant program for local projects. At the very least, they should follow DiNapoli’s recommendation to do away with lump-sum appropriations and limit capital funding to individual projects based on “clear, measurable and objective criteria.”
Until that happens, unfortunately, some lucky dogs and skateboarders — not to mention politically well-connected nonprofit groups and businesses — will have lots to look forward to.