State budget keeps oinking along

by E.J. McMahon |  | NY Torch

Screen Shot 2015-01-29 at 10.52.11 AMGovernor Andrew Cuomo eliminated funding of new “member item” spending when he took office four years ago—but the Ghost of Pork Barrels Past continues to haunt the state’s finances.

Each of Cuomo’s first four Executive Budget proposals projected the depletion and elimination of what’s technically known as the “Community Projects Fund – 007” — but every year, the enacted budget has restored the money to back up reappropriations of the member item lump sum.

Based on data in the fiscal 2015-16 financial plan, the governor could immediately create up to $87 million in cash for other, more important purposes by simply canceling all remaining member items, once and for all. After all, since most of these items were first approved five years ago, and some date back to 2007, how can they can be considered anything more than a not-exactly-top political priority of individual members?

The pork seesaw

The amount said to be reserved in the Community Projects Fund account has varied from a low of $51 million to a high of $136 million since Cuomo presented his first budget in 2011.  A summary of reported amounts and changes:

2011-12 Executive Budget: “proposed repeal of a scheduled $85 million deposit, elimination of the fund, and the final spendown of the balance.”

Enacted 2011-12 Budget: reported a $136 million balance in the  fund at end of fiscal 2011 and projected disbursements of $85 million by the end of the fiscal year.

2012-13 Executive Budget: projected there would be $51 million left in the fund, all of which would be spent down with no further deposits.

Enacted 2012-13 budget: Reported a $102 million balance in the fund as of the end of fiscal 2012 and projected a decrease of $45 million during the year.

2013-14 Executive budget: Projected there would be $57 million left in the fund and that the entire amount would be spent during the year with no further deposits.

Enacted 2013-14 budget: reported a $93 million fund balance at the end of fiscal 2012-13 and projected that $25 million would be spent during the year, leaving $68 million.

2014-15 Executive Budget: projected a $68 million fund balance would be completely spent during the year.

Enacted 2014-15 budget: revised the balance to $87 million and said it would be spent during the fiscal year.

The 2015-16 Executive Budget unveiled by Cuomo last week projects an $87 million balance in the Community Projects Fund and assumes the entire amount will be spent during the year.  The state comptroller reported there was about $78 million in cash left in the account as of December.

Cuomo’s member-item history

Soon after taking office as attorney general in 2007, Cuomo announced a “fundamental reform” of the member item process, requiring member item contracts to include “certification provisions requir[ing] the recipient of member item grants to reveal any potential conflict of interest and financial relationship with sponsoring members or their staff.”

However, the process still lacks a fundamental level of transparency. For example, the enacted 2014-15 Aid to Localities bill restored 193 groups of member item appropriations, which in turn are broken down into what appear to be several thousand (mostly) four- or five-figure individual grants to local governments and nonprofit agencies. However, the budget bills offer no further information identifying the sponsors of those items. Finding that information would require a laborious crosscheck of recipient names and contracts filed with the attorney general’s office.

The Community Projects Fund is by no means the sole conduit of pork barrel operational or capital spending by the Legislature or the governor. But shutting down the Community Projects Fund account would mark an essential step towards true reform of this entire area.

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- E.J. McMahon is the Research Director at the Empire Center for Public Policy.