You might think that Senate Democrats don't have much to crow about -- two of their members switched sides, paralyzing the Senate for a month and leaving voters and the rest of New York's politicians steaming angry. Even after both dissident pols returned, the body remained fractured, unable to act on controversial measures like gay marriage. But Democrats have a not-so-secret weapon in their fight to keep voters on their side: cold, hard cash, otherwise known as member items, community projects funds or simply pork.
And New York City residents could have the biggest reason to cheer. While the former Republican majority was based largely upstate and delivered hearty sums of cash to causes there, the Democratic majority is almost entirely headquartered in New York City, and this year its members are delivering a bonanza of cash to their districts. New York City-based Democrats, who could bring their districts only a few hundred thousand dollars last year, are now dragging home bags of cash with millions -- all while the state is suffering a financial crisis such as it has never seen before.
Where the Money Goes
The taxpayer funds that are allocated as "member items" in each year's budget are allegedly designed to allow legislators to better address the needs of their districts: $10,000 for a van for a homeless shelter here, $5,000 for a neighborhood Little League there. "Member items notoriously helped fund the cheese museum. They fund rod and gun clubs. But not everything they do is bad," said Blair Horner of the New York Public Interest Research Group.
||MEMBER ITEM AMOUNT
|1. Senate President Pro Tempore Malcolm Smith (D)
|2. Deputy Majority Leader Jeff Klein (D)
|3. Vice Finance Chair Liz Krueger (D)
|3. Finance Chair Carl Kruger (D)
|5. Democratic Leader John Sampson (D)
|6. Tom Duane (D)
|6. Velmanette Montgomery (D)
|6. Eric Schneiderman (D)
|9. George Onorato (D)
|10. Pedro Espada Jr. (D)
View the full list
Take a look through this year's member items and you will see a smattering of causes. Sen. Jeffrey Klein has allocated $25,000 to "upgrade t-ball field" to the Van Nest Little League. Sen. Liz Krueger gave $10,000 to the Workmen's Circle/ Arbeiter Ring, Inc for "Yiddishfest 2009," a concert series that brings "Jewish and Yiddish music to all New Yorkers." Sen. Suzi Oppenheimer of Westchester provided the group with $5,000. Sen. Hiram Monserrate gave the Audubon Partnership for Economic Development $47,500 to "cover the cost of remodeling." Sen. Tom Duane gave $20,000 to Hetrick Martin Institute Inc. for the Harvey Milk High School. Soup kitchens, churches, senior centers, day cares, sex education groups, historical societies and community sports leagues are all popular recipients.
But, however worthy the causes member items support, they serve a variety of other purposes. Primarily, the allocations have become a method of control for the leaders of the Senate majority party and a tool to bolster the reelection chances of their members.
Handing out huge chunks of cash in your district tends to help keep you popular. "If a legislator comes in like Santa Claus and starts distributing money to groups in his district, people are going to like them," said Horner. "Those groups are going to become invested in the political future of that politician. It doesn't mean it is quid pro quo, but it helps."
Doling Out the Funds
Members from both the Assembly and Senate have traditionally had to submit requests to their conference leadership for approval. Legislators tend to get pork based primarily on their party allegiance and then on their loyalty, seniority and what kind of election challenge they may face. This year the Assembly and the Senate each handed out about $85 million.
In the Assembly Assembly Speaker Sheldon Silver holds notoriously tight control over which of his members get what.
In both houses, the member item process has been traditionally very secretive. It wasn't until the Albany Times Union sued the legislature to reveal where the funds were going that the Senate and Assembly started publicly releasing the information. You can find this year's pork information on the Senate and Assembly web sites.
Silver's tendency to award his district and other city-based legislators with large amounts of pork was seen as a balance to the former Republican Senate majority that mostly sent its member items upstate and to Long Island. But things have changed. With Democrats now in control of the Senate, President Pro Tem Malcolm Smith was in charge of distributing the funds, and most of his conference is from the city.
Bringing Home the Bacon
Take, for example, some of the Democrats' highest earners. Democratic Leader Sen. John Sampson secured $274,500 in member items last year. This year his sum was $3.04 million. Sampson recently came under fire from the New York Post for allocating $63,500 in member items over the years to non-profits whose representatives have contributed to his campaign. "I represent some of the more distressed communities in the state and fund social-service organizations, which provide local health care, after-school programs and public-safety initiatives," Sampson told the Post.
Sen. Carl Kruger brought $850,000 to his district last year -- a large take for a Democrat under Republican rule -- thanks to his cozy relationship with Republicans. This year, though, Kruger delivered $4 million. Kruger is a member of the gang of four, whose members have demanded more power for their loyalty. One of his fellow amigos, Sen. Pedro Espada Jr., who was not even a member of the Senate last year, delivered $2.05 million to his district. His predecessor, a Democrat, brought home $300,000.
Espada's member item allotment, like most everything he touches, was not without controversy. After he bolted his party Democrats accused Espada of trying to direct millions of dollars in member items to two recently created groups that were run by acquaintances of his. It was alleged that Espada was furious when Democrats denied the funds after careful review. Espada has denied the allegations.
Liz Krueger saw her member items jump from her high as a member of the Democratic minority last year of $300,000 to $4 million this year. Krueger said she has allotted about half of that money to "state- and city-wide organizations that provide direct service to the low-income population."
Perhaps the biggest winner after Smith, who was majority leader until last month, is Klein. Klein’s haul went from $363,800 to $5 million.
Along with what individual members received for their districts, Democrats also allocated the Bronx, Brooklyn, Queens and Manhattan delegations $250,000 apiece to hand out. The black and Latino senators have $1 million to hand out that will strongly benefit the city.
There is a different story for Republicans. Sen. Martin Golden of Brooklyn saw his take drop from $2.26 million to $250,000. Staten Island Sen. Andrew Lanza's pork pot went from $2.09 million to $250,000.
Sen. Frank Padavan brought home significantly more than most of his Republican colleagues this year. But he still saw a significant drop in his take. Last year he brought home $2.44 million; this year he was allocated $510,000. Padavan was probably spared the harsher cuts some of his Republican colleagues endured because his seat is deemed to be under threat of a Democratic takeover.
Earlier this month, even after the Democrats retook their majority, the Senate remained racked by chaos, as it finally tried to ram through legislation after a month of inactivity. Major issues were ignored, but the Senate did manage to dole out $84,953,000 in member items. The matter was supposed to have been addressed during the budget process in March and April but because of the Democrats’ general disorganization the measure that would have actually allocated the funding was not ready until June 8. That day Democrats had a resolution ready that would have given them $76.7 million and Republicans $8.25 million.
But there was a hitch. Republicans launched a coup in conjunction with Espada and Monserrate. One of the main motivating factors for the Republicans was the allocation of member items. For decades they had enjoyed the benefits of delivering millions of dollars in member items to their districts. It kept them popular, bolstered their standing in their communities and made it much easier for them to get reelected.
After Monserrate and Espada returned to the Democratic fold, Republicans demanded that Democrats enact rules changes and more fairly distribute member items. A deal was reached between leaders from both parties, and in the wee hours of the morning the rules were changed, ensuring that the majority party will receive two thirds of pork and the minority one third -- but not this year.
Horner, for one, does not see this representing much progress. He said the change "simply codifies a political spoils system." Before the rules changes were implemented there was nothing in writing saying that the system will be inequitable. Now, Horner said, it will be in the Senate code that the minority will receive less.
Not to mention that this year the allocation split is just as it was going to be on June 8, with Democrats getting $76.7 million and Republicans $8.25 million.
Horner calls the split "grotesquely unfair." But some Democrats are less than apologetic about the disparity. They say they suffered for years while Republicans horded the pork in their troughs. One upstate Democrat said he was proud that he would finally be able to give the worthy charities, such as homeless shelters and after school centers, the money they deserve.
Sen. Kevin Parker was the lone vote against the rules changes "At the very time that we have finally got black and Latino leaders, all of a sudden we're looking to limit. We've never had that before. We had old white guys running the chamber for 250 years," Parker said earlier this month, referring to rules that would set the new pork guidelines and make it easier for members to introduce legislation.
Krueger has a different take. She said that Republicans might recognize that this year's allocation could be seen as "restitution for years of inequity." But she thought that the desire to open the spending tap also might have motivated the Republicans to agree to the Democrats' division of the money.
If the allocation process had started over again, the state Department of Budget would had to have become involved, and the entire vetting process would have begun all over, forcing senators to either stay in Albany or return again just to address member items. "The sense was, let us get as much done as we can and let us get out of this city," said Krueger. Democrats also agreed to give Republicans access millions of dollars in old member item funding that wasn’t used in years past.
The disparity in allocations of member items could help or hurt Democrats politically. Upstate districts have received drastically less funding than they did under Republican rule. Although he represents Queens, Smith allocated some of his $5.7 million to upstate projects as part of his effort to paint the Democratic Majority as upstate-friendly.
The upstate and suburban delegations have been allocated $1 million and $875,000 respectively. It's not that upstate members did not get their piece large of the pork pie -- Sens. David Valesky and Neil Breslin were allocated $4,500,000 and $3,000,000, respectively -- it's just that there are significantly fewer upstaters in the Democratic conference than there were in the former Republican majority. (Irene Jay Liu of the Albany Times Union put together some very helpful maps to demonstrate the shift in funding.)
The disparity could fuel anger against Democrats in upstate and suburban Republican districts, making it harder for Democrats to win more seats, or it could help Democrats, in that residents of such a district might want to see their district represented by a member of the majority party. Republicans running from Westchester to Buffalo have long campaigned on the inequities between upstate and downstate.
In his heyday, former Republican Senate Majority Leader Joe Bruno regularly doled out anywhere between $4 million and $6 million to his rural upstate district. The people who bothered to challenge Bruno for his seat were thought of as brave fools. This year Bruno's successor, Republican Sen. Roy McDonald was allocated $250,000. McDonald's seat is now seen as a one that might be in play for Democrats down the line.
"Member items have always been a political spoils system where the majority leaders get the meat and the minority gets the scraps," said Horner.
Fix It or Forget It?
Horner, for one, thinks the member items should be allocated equally or done away with completely.
While Krueger has said that she wouldn't mind scrapping the member item system completely, she notes the system can help worthy causes.
"I could play it both ways," said Krueger. "I would certainly like to not have them if they continue to be an inequitable source of scandal-filled dollars." She said she hopes that, with Democrats in charge, the distribution of member items will be more equitable and will root out unworthy recipients. Kruger noted that she thinks Democrats have done a thorough job "vetting" their members' requests and pointed out that Attorney General Andrew Cuomo reviews member items after they have been allotted but before they have actually been distributed.
On the other hand, Krueger said she could envision a system where individual legislators do not get to influence where state funds go. "I could support some kind of RFP [Request for Proposal] process where not-for-profits that are otherwise ineligible for state funds would be able to submit proposals that would not be unlike other state government RFP processes," she said.
Most Democrats, though, are in no hurry to get rid of their shiny new toy. "They barely have a majority," said one source. "They aren't in a hurry to get rid of anything that could help them win even one seat."
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