Last year, our state faced unprecedented fiscal challenges, so state government asked businesses and families to do more with less. At the leaders’ meeting last November, when the Governor asked for recommendations to balance the budget, I suggested that we eliminate the politically controlled member- item process. I recommended that we establish a more open and transparent system to fund community needs. With that in mind and a $15 billion deficit looming, I decided not to accept member-item funding for 2009.
I have long been bothered by the manner in which these funds are doled out. The majorities in both houses kept the lion’s share of the $170 million allocated for member items in this year’s budget. Politics, not geography or need, has and continues to determine where the money is sent. The state Senate provides a glaring example of how the process works. Despite the fact that there are 30 minority and 32 majority members, the controlling party received $77 million of the $85 million allocated, and the Assembly isn’t much better. Most of that money will be spent in New York City.
Now is the time to build on the work begun in 2007 by Attorney General Andrew Cuomo with Project Sunlight. We need to overhaul the member-item process so that it is no longer politically driven. We need to change the system so that it is more of a “community need” driven process. With that in mind, I have proposed enacting a “Community Needs Integrity” plan. This plan calls for:
- The fair distribution of dollars to all legislators, minority and majority, and regions of the state;
- Monies to be awarded based upon the need and merit of the programs seeking funding;
- Detailed, transparent, public line-itemed references to all community need projects in the state budget so that it is clear where the money is going and which legislator requested it;
- Tougher sanctions for those who inappropriately allocate funds along with expedited means to recoup illegally disbursed funds; and
- An ongoing review of all member-item funds by an independent blue ribbon commission called the Community Need Review Commission who would work with the Attorney General and Comptroller on the evaluations of project requests and their transparency.
It is imperative that a nonpartisan review committee be established to serve New York State taxpayers to ensure that their money is being spent appropriately. The committee will be charged with safeguarding the integrity and transparency of the process so that the public can easily see how their hard-earned tax dollars are being spent. The committee also will be charged with setting up guidelines to prioritize and rank the requests and with publicly posting them at least two weeks prior to the April 1st budget deadline. Final project funding decisions also would be made public within a week after the budget passage.
New York State is facing its worst fiscal crisis since the Great Depression. We should be reforming the process of funding important community needs in a way that guarantees equity for all New Yorkers. If state government cannot or will not change this process so that it is open, fair and transparent, it should be done away with completely and the money should be given back, in the form of tax cuts. Reforming the member-item process is a good first step in reforming how New York spends taxpayer dollars.
Constituents who wish to discuss this topic or any other state-related matter should contact my office at (518) 370-2812 or e-mail me at firstname.lastname@example.org.