Say a stranger comes up to you on the street and asks you for $1,000.
He doesn’t tell you what he needs the money for. It’s a secret. He just tells you he needs it. You don’t ask any questions or place any restrictions on the money. You just hope he does the right thing.
The next year, the same man approaches you. He says he’s got $750 leftover from the money you gave him last year. But he wants you to give him another $1,000, plus an extra $50 this year.
Again, he doesn’t tell you why he needs it or what he plans to do with it. And again, you ask no questions and set no restrictions.
The year after that, same deal.
Knowing all this in hindsight, would you have ever given this person even one red cent of your hard-earned money?
But that’s pretty much how the state Legislature determines how hundreds of millions of our tax dollars are spent each year — through a giant political slush fund known as the State and Municipal Facilities Program, or SAM.
The Empire Center, a government watchdog group in Albany, calls it the “biggest, murkiest, pork-barrel slush fund Albany (and perhaps any state capital) has ever seen.”
The allocation is slipped into the state budget without any explanation from legislative leaders and the governor.
According to the Empire Center, there are no public hearings, debates or briefings on why state taxpayers are compelled to pay into or expand the fund.
State Comptroller Thomas DiNapoli, New York’s chief fiscal officer, has complained that the state budget includes no details on what the funds are to be used for or the process for approving the spending of the money.
Essentially, the state can spend it on virtually anything. It’s used for “economic development,” one of the most broad and wasteful categories of state spending. It also is allocated to local governments, schools, colleges, libraries and even sewer districts for anything ranging from capital assets to “innovation,” according to the center.
Legislators can request money from the fund for pet projects in their districts, helping them gain favor with local voters and boost their re-election chances.
Some of the projects certainly might be worthwhile and desired by local communities. But since there’s no rhyme or reason for how the money is allocated and no stringent application process based on priorities of needs, our tax dollars for this fund might be going to buy trees to line a bike path on Long Island or for a dog park in Watertown or to prop up some risky start-up company that may never produce a return for taxpayers.
There’s nothing wrong with providing funding for legitimate government projects. That’s why you have a state budget.
But the unaccountable manner in which this fund is supported and distributed without justification for every dollar spent is secretive and wasteful.
You might as well fork over your wallet to a stranger.
The chances of the money being spent appropriately are just as bad.