A healthy debate is now raging in Washington, D.C., over the use of congressional "earmarks" to spend pork barrel money out of federal budget appropriations. Conservatives and liberals alike agree that the practice is wasteful and should be eliminated or severely curtailed. The fight against earmarking may end inconclusively this year, but at least it's happening and it's out in the open.
Too bad the same can't be said about New York. Our state legislators are no less fond of arbitrarily targeting taxpayers' money to organizations and individuals who can help hold onto their offices. But in Albany, the pork barrel process is shrouded in more secrecy than ever.
Unlike their counterparts in Congress, state legislators won't disclose how or why they are spending much of their pork money, or who is sponsoring any of the thousands of individual pork barrel grants handed out every year as "member items."
One of the Legislature's biggest pork barrel pots is a $200 million lump sum divvied up by the governor, the Senate majority leader and the Assembly speaker. Although the Big Three treat this money as a closely guarded secret, the Empire Center for New York State Policy recently used the state Freedom of Information Law to obtain and publicize complete lists of member items for 2003 through 2005.
The lists total 1,154 pages and include 22,980 grants that come to just over $479 million. When we posted these files on our Web site, www.empirecenter.org, traffic to the site jumped tenfold overnight. Tens of thousands of copies of the files have now been downloaded by interested citizens all over New York.
Much of the money flows in small amounts to Little Leagues, senior citizens centers and other community nonprofit groups. But there were also larger items targeted to advocacy groups whose support is coveted by legislators seeking re-election. For example, the Senate and Assembly gave more than two dozen grants totaling more than $400,000 to NARAL, which exists to promote abortion rights.
Hundreds of thousands also flowed to politically active organized labor groups.
Gov. George Patakihas generally been the Legislature's chief enabler and partner in dividing up the spoils of political power. But the 2006-07 member-item appropriation was one of several pork barrel money pots vetoed by the governor last week.
Individual pork barrel items are normally buried in much bigger bills. But if legislative leaders decide to try to override Pataki, they will be subject to rare up-or-down votes in isolation.
In that case, Central New Yorkers will have an opportunity to hold their representatives accountable for the secretive and excessive spending.