Assemblywoman Sandy Galef recently introduced bill A.1740, in an effort to make the process of distributing “member items” more open and equitable. Currently no law exists to notice the process exists, let alone any rules or regulations to make the distribution of member items less bias and fairer.
Member items are funded with taxpayer money and are distributed to each legislator to use at their discretion to allot to programs, organizations, and other causes within their respectful districts. The Speaker allots funding to the Members of Assembly and Majority Leader Bruno rations out the subsidies to State Senators.
Member items are allocated in a lump sum, which varies in amount with each legislator; and once received, they divvy it up to different projects within their districts as they see fit. The allotted funding with corresponding not-for-profits is then sent to the Division of Budget for approval, to ensure that the money is not going to a for-profit organization or a lobbying group. Once approved, the funds are distributed to the groups chosen to receive funding by the legislator.
Critics of this process state that member items allow legislators to have “pet projects” and distribute funding to causes that are near and dear to their hearts. Coupled with the unfairness of some legislators receiving large amounts of funds and others with little or no funding, Galef saw a need for change.
“Currently, the member item process is neither equitable nor open,” stated the Assemblywoman, who refuses to receive member items until the process is regulated and fair. “Information about who stands to benefit from these state dollars should be available for public comment before the money is committed.”
There are no rules in member item distribution, other than the recipients must be a not-for-profit organization, and no application process for the groups seeking a member item grant. This can lead to a group in one area of the state getting a large amount of member item funding while the same group, located in another part of the state, gets nothing. For example, a study performed by Common Cause New York found that one group of counties with less than half the state’s population was granted nearly two-thirds of all member item money for schools and the elderly.
A.1740 would seek to amend this process, making it a requirement that any addition to the budget for a member item would have to be allocated to every legislator in the corresponding house. This legislation would also make much more information available for public viewing. For example, the organization gaining member item funding would be available to the public, along with the amount allotted, the sponsoring group, and its full address. Citizens would be able to view the legislator(s) that allotted the funding and whether they have relatives employed or involved with the not-for-profit.
This bill also would provide that the Senate Finance Committee and the Assembly Ways and Means Committee establish further rules and regulations for establishing a member item addition to the budget. If an addition is approved, according to A.1740, this addition would be voted on as a line item.
Galef believes that this legislation will make the distribution process fair for all legislators and their constituents. She states, “We should hold ourselves and our colleagues accountable to the citizens of New York. It is particularly important now, with the state facing a fiscal crisis that we insist on integrity of the member item process.”