While the Thanksgiving season soon will have most of us thinking about turkey, state lawmakers should start thinking about pork.
Not eating it.
In less than two months, lawmakers will be returning to Albany to begin carving out a new state budget that will determine the programs, services and taxes for the state’s 20 million residents.
Given that New Yorkers are among the highest-taxed residents in the nation, it’s imperative that lawmakers make the taxpayers’ money work best for them.
They can start by eliminating wasteful, unjustified spending for local projects awarded to favored lawmakers in the form of member items — commonly known as “pork.”
Much of this money is awarded by the political party in power; in New York, Democrats control both houses of the Legislature and the governor’s office.
By allowing elected officials to claim credit for state-funded local projects, the party leadership helps their members show potential voters in their districts that they’re “bringing home the bacon.” (Get it? Pork? Bacon?)
It’s a taxpayer-funded tool to help preserve incumbency and strengthen the majority party.
Last year’s record $212 billion state budget, which included a tax increase for the wealthy, contained tens of millions of dollars for these types of projects, money that is diverted from other priorities such as education, social programs and infrastructure improvements.
Often it’s a challenge to even identify these expenditures, and it’s almost impossible to find out how money for these projects is justified or accounted for.
Among the wasteful spending in the current state budget, according to a New York Post report from April, is $4.6 million for efforts to keep the Buffalo Bills in New York state (as if they were ever leaving); $125,000 for Christmas tree farmers to promote Christmas trees (as if we don’t know when Christmas is coming); and $250,000 for some kind of cannabis workforce initiative at cash-strapped Cornell University (sarcasm; the university has a $10 billion endowment fund).
The Empire Center for Public Policy, a state government watchdog group, last week released a list of $104 million grant awards for 305 local projects between April and October that are administered by the state Dormitory Authority.
Not all the projects are necessarily bad or completely wasteful.
They include upgrades to restrooms at public facilities such as ice rinks and public parks; and new roofs, playgrounds and equipment for municipal transportation departments.
But should taxpayers be paying the $15 million cost for a new community center on Long Island or $500,000 for a new roof on an ice rink in Buffalo or $2 million to renovate the interior of the Universal Hip Hop Museum in New York City?
Those are questions lawmakers should be asking before expending taxpayer dollars for these projects.
The problem isn’t necessarily that all the projects lack merit, but that the allocation of taxpayer money isn’t based on any legitimate review or justification process.
Most of the Dormitory Authority awards, according to the Empire Center, are funded through the state’s $2 billion State and Municipal Facilities Program (SMFP).
That SMFP fund is tucked into the state budget and requires no public hearings, debates or briefings on why state taxpayers are compelled to pay into or expand the fund.
The state comptroller has long complained that the fund includes no details on what the funds are to be used for or the process for approving the spending of the money.
Broadly stating that a project promotes “economic development” is no substitute for a detailed analysis of exactly what kind of economic development a project will generate, and how that value will be measured and maintained.
Many of the projects on the Empire Center’s list are for municipal needs such as buildings and dumptrucks and emergency vehicles that should be put through the normal bidding and procurement process. Other funding is for infrastructure improvements like sewer lines — money that should be allocated through the state’s infrastructure spending. Funding for these types of projects should be distributed under specific budget categories, put out for competitive bidding, and weighed against the value and need for similar projects around the state.
Wouldn’t you think $300,000 for surveillance cameras for the New York Police Department should fall under public safety, not included in some general slush fund?
A lack of strict oversight and public review of spending opens the door for wasteful spending and bias, as some areas benefit at the expense of others represented by lawmakers who have less political clout to get a piece of the pie.
State lawmakers need to make the review process for municipal projects like these transparent and subject to equal and legitimate scrutiny.
Spending without accountability costs all New Yorkers in one way or another.
With a new budget looming, lawmakers need to spend turkey time trying to find a way to eliminate the pork.
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