Still more capital pork in budget

by E.J. McMahon |  | NY Torch

New York’s Legislature and Governor Andrew Cuomo are about to shovel nearly a half-billion dollars more into the biggest, murkiest, pork-barrel slush fund Albany (and perhaps any state capital) has ever seen.

The agreed-upon fiscal 2019 Capital Projects appropriations bill, in the process of passing (without a negative Senate vote) on Friday night as part of the rushed new state budget, adds $475 million for the State and Municipal Facilities Program (or SAM, also known as SMFP)—the ultimate election-year pig in a blanket.

The sum includes yet another allocation of $385 million (a numeral of apparently mystical significance to legislators, as noted below) plus $90 million set aside for a seemingly ever-lengthening list of authorized purposes and grantees that now include the Metropolitan Transportation Authority and the St. Lawrence Seaway (see pp. 931-933 of the bill).

Pouring annual increments of $385 million into the SMFP trough, first created in fiscal 2014, has become an Albany budget tradition. The new appropriation, including that added $90 million, would bring the total authorized for the program over the past five years to a whopping $2.4 billion, of which roughly $500 million (all of it borrowed) has been spent. (For more background on the program, whose existence was first disclosed by the Empire Center in 2013, see links here, here, and here. For a more extensive critique, see my June 2016 op-ed in the New York Post.)

Also in keeping with tradition, no justification for the latest expansion of the program has been offered by the governor or the legislative leaders. As in previous years, the possibility of expanding the fund has never come up in public hearings, debates or briefings. And as state Comptroller Thomas DiNapoli has noted, 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.”

The oddly repetitive annual addition of $385 million—as if $200 million wouldn’t be enough, but $500 million would be just too much—is also unexplained. Was someone’s spouse or favorite child born in March 1985?  Is 3-8-5 someone’s weekly Lotto pick? Or has “$385 million” become a quick shift-command key combination on some bill drafting computer?

Purposes for which SAM money can be spent encompass practically anything that qualifies as “capital” (i.e., tangible structures or goods), including stuff purchased in support of the highly elastic category of “economic development projects.” Entities eligible to receive SAM money include the state and its local governments; public school districts; colleges and universities; a wide range of public authorities; public libraries; and water, sewer and fire districts. Last year, the Legislature expanded SAM spending to include “the acquisition by eligible entities of equipment and other capital assets, including vehicles, in support of health, safety, technology, or innovation.”

The SAM money is raised through bond sales by the Dormitory Authority and ultimately controlled by the governor, subject to some tacit agreement with the Senate and Assembly that allows legislators to apply for chunks of money for projects in their districts.

As reflected in the searchable spending database at the Empire Center’s SeeThroughNY.net transparency website, the list of 1,266 projects to which SAM funds had been allocated through 2016 was topped by grants to several of the SUNY Poly subsidiaries that figure prominently in a federal indictment of Poly’s founder and former president, Alain Kaloyeros.

Cuomo also has tapped the SAM for comparative fun money, such as the $5 million handed to CBS for renovation of the Ed Sullivan Theater in Manhattan, where “The Late Show With Stephen Colbert” is taped. On the other end of the scale, SAM allocations include numerous legislatively steered $50,00o awards to localities for such essential state purposes as “renovation of the bathrooms and locker rooms at the Oyster Bay Cove Police Department.”

 

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