Member Items, also known as legislative pork, have been the subject of much discussion in the New York State Legislature this year, and I have heard from my constituents about them as well. Currently, there is a lax system in place for legislators to distribute member item money throughout their legislative districts. Member items represent from $170-200 million in the general budget. They are given out at the discretion of the legislator, and often help support very worthy local or regional causes, organizations, etc.
But in the broader context, the member item system is rife with inequities and potentials for abuse. At the legislative level, some legislators may believe that if they vote a certain way on legislation, the leadership may be more inclined to favor them when divvying up member item dollars. There is no prescribed way to distribute these dollars among legislators, and recently some good government groups posted just how unfair the distribution of dollars was throughout the state (see the article on NYPIRG’s website). Areas that receive larger pots of money now, since the majority in the Senate has switched, were receiving very little before. Traditionally, the party in power gets the lion’s share of the monies and parses them out via the party leadership.
Assembly Members and State Senators are allowed to announce the amounts they grant to various community organizations right before elections. This means, essentially, that taxpayer dollars are being used to influence election outcomes. Leaders may choose to add or reduce member item allocations around the state to help their party stay in power. When studying the reasons that incumbents are successful in retaining their seats, member items must be considered.
Furthermore, there have been multiple occasions in recent history where member item abuses have been reported. For example, money has been given to groups which have no fiscal oversight in place, and then been funneled back into the pockets of the sources of that funding, or their relatives.
As I mentioned, member items are discretionary funding. While there is no doubt that many legislators use them for good, in these tough times, with money in the state as tight as it is and with a $9.2 billion deficit looming, we must eliminate the member items line from the budget. There is no room for discretionary funding. Generally, I believe that anything worthy of state funding (which many of these organizations are) should be itemized in the state budget.
If, however, the majority of state legislators continue to maintain the notion that they should distribute funding locally because they are in the best position to assess local needs, then the system must be changed to be equitable, transparent, and fair.
I have proposed three bills this legislative session regarding member items. The first one (A.9427) calls for eliminating member items from the budget this fiscal year. The second bill (A. 6856) disallows legislators or a governor to distribute member items funds within 60 days prior to an election.
The third bill I have sponsored (A.10116) puts in place recommendations from the good government groups who helped me craft this bill. These recommendations have strong transparency, ethics, and oversight provisions which include the following:
- Each member of each house must receive equal shares of the member items allocated to their respective governing body (i.e. every member of the assembly receives the same dollar's worth of member items as every other, and the senators would receive the same as one another as well).
- The state agencies which ultimately fund the member item would also be responsible for evaluating how the recipients are spending their member item money and would have to report that information to the public.
- Member items listing the names of the recipient groups and the sponsoring legislator or governor will have to be made public 24 hours in advance of budget approval to allow for public comment, and be in a clear format to facilitate that public comment.
- Conflicts of interest between the governor or the legislator and the member item recipient would have to be publicly reported in a timely manner prior to budget approval and member items would not be allowed to be appropriated to organizations that employ or compensate the legislator, governor, or his or her family or staff.
- Groups interested in receiving member items would have to be “precleared” through the Attorney General, which would include verifying the group's tax status and that they have filed the required annual report for any prior member items monies received.
In my opinion, member items should only continue to exist with these regulations in place.
Some of my constituents feel that my policy not to accept member items is unfair to the localities I represent. I do not believe that I can morally accept taxpayer dollars that are unfairly allocated, and are used to corrupt our democracy. I will continue to advocate strongly for these reforms, among others, and I encourage my constituents to support me in this goal.