Nearly a month after passing the state budget, the state Legislature finally got around to disclosing important details of nearly $150 million in pork-barrel "member item" allocations last week.
As usual, Assembly Democrats and Senate Republicans have claimed a disproportionately large slice of the pork pie -- and they're serving up the biggest allocations to their most politically powerful or vulnerable members.
Critics say the process is unfair. That's true -- but fairness is not the real issue here.
The fundamental problem with member items is not equity but excess. In defending their pork proclivities, legislators talk as if there are important community needs that would not be met without their member-item funding.
In fact, not counting member items, the $122 billion state budget already includes hundreds of millions of dollars in funding for regular state agency programs with goals similar or even identical to that of member-item grants.
For example, the state Office for the Aging will spend $246 million this year on "programs and services which support and empower the elderly" yet the member-item breakdown includes literally hundreds of special allocations to senior citizen centers that already receive state funding through regular state channels.
In addition, the pork list includes hundreds of special-interest handouts like $5,000 to collect oral histories from Italian-American leaders in New York City, $150,000 to build a boathouse for rowing teams in Syracuse and $5,000 for the curiously named "Men With Exquisite Taste" education program Queens.
There are dozens and dozens of grants to Little Leagues and other youth sports groups for everything from uniforms to field improvements -- the kind of thing that, not too long ago, was paid for entirely through bake sales, raffles and 50-50 drawings. Most of this stuff is unobjectionable
-- but why are the taxpayers footing the bill?
The real purpose of member items is not programmatic but political. The process allows legislators to dole out financial "contributions" as if each of them was a wealthy philanthropist -- but using taxpayers' money. In the process, they pick up IOUs for redemption at election time. In effect, it's a form of public campaign financing by another name.
Well-meaning good-government advocates say member items can be reformed through greater transparency. They're wrong.
The program is a symptom of waste and irresponsibility, as well as secrecy. It's inherently prone to abuse and corruption. The right answer is to do away with member item spending all together.
In other words, don't mend it, end it.