The press releases and, sadly, often the headlines and stories in the local newspapers say state Sen. X or state Assemblyman Y has “secured” X amount of money for a local not-for-profit group, school district or government agency.
While this isn’t exactly “fake news,” it is usually not the whole truth, either.
Unsaid in the releases is that the money is drawn from three programs in the state Legislature whose primary goal is to win state legislators the good will of the recipients and the votes of their members.
These three programs — the State and Municipal Facilities Program, the Community Projects Fund and supplemental grants to school districts and libraries known as “bullet aid” — distribute hundreds of millions of dollars each year.
The money may often go to worthwhile projects and programs such as such scoreboard for a Little League baseball field, resurfaced tennis courts, a power generator or performances for children at a local theater.
But that’s not the main intent of the money, which is getting legislators re-elected and ensuring control by party leaders.
The proof is in how the money is awarded and by whom.
The whom is the majority leader of each chamber — Democrat Carl Heastie in the Assembly and Republican John Flanagan in the Senate.
They distribute the money based on the to-the-victors-go-the-spoils theory of government spending, not need.
According to a list the Senate published, Republican senators and Democrats who vote and caucus with them awarded nearly $84.5 million worth of State and Municipal Facilities Program grants between early 2014 and October 2015. Democrats who are not part of the breakaway Independent Democratic Conference — aside from Simcha Felder of Brooklyn, who votes with Republicans — got nothing.
Assembly Democrats, in turn, gave more than $104.2 million in SAM grants in 2015, according to a list the Assembly published. Republicans got a total of $3.6 million.
If funding worthwhile projects was the primary goal of the funds, then members of both parties in both houses of the Legislature would receive comparable amounts to spend.
And legislators from less affluent, financially hurting areas of the state would get more than legislators from affluent suburban counties receive a comparable amount of money.
Putting the money in the hands of the majority party’s leaders also accomplishes a second political goal — members’ loyalty to each house’s leader.
For some, the possible loss of money for his or her district tends to help legislators see the wisdom in how the majority leader asks them to vote.
And it is worth noting that both Heastie and Flanagan were voted majority leader after their predecessors — Sheldon Silver and Dean Skelos — were convicted of political corruption.
“At the end of the day we shouldn’t be doing any of them,” said E.J. McMahon, executive director of the Empire Center for Public Policy, a conservative think tank, said of the funding last year. “This is not core state priorities. This is political pork.”
The Senate and Assembly have published some lists of awarded grants on their websites, but spokespeople for both chambers did not respond last year to emails seeking detailed information about how money is allocated among legislators and the processes for determining who receives grants.
The process for receiving grants is straightforward — municipalities or community organizations send lawmakers a letter saying what they want to do and how much money they need to do it, and the legislator decides who gets funding.
But the process for awarding money is left up to the legislator with little or no transparency to voters or anyone else.
This did not sit well with state Comptroller Tom DiNapoli.
In a May 2016 comptroller’s report titled “Unfinished Business: Fiscal Reform in New York State,” DiNapoli proposed more strictly regulating lump-sum budget appropriations like those used to fund the grant programs.
“Details on expenditures — purposes, recipients and other key factors — remain largely outside the State accounting system,” DiNapoli’s report says, specifically referring to one of the three programs used to fund the grants, the State and Municipal Facilities Program. “… As a result, it is difficult for the public to be assured that the funds are being put to good use in a cost-efficient and effective manner.”
Given the record of state legislators in New York, by which we mean the criminal records of many legislators, this should not be a comforting thought to voters.
DiNapoli, who served in the Assembly, did not raise another obvious question — why are part-time state lawmakers permitted to award taxpayer money.
Sadly, the answer does not appear to be the needs of the local groups.