Albany’s Recipe for Pork Needs Revising

By: Assemblywoman Sandy Galef and Senator José M. Serrano
March 29, 2011

This is the opportune time to reform the Legislature’s member item process. While this year’s fiscal crisis has precluded member items, officially known as discretionary funds, in the 2012 Budget, member items will resurface when the State’s finances have rebounded. When that time arrives, we must have a system that is equitable to all communities and inspires public confidence.

The trouble with member items is not the funds themselves, but how they are distributed. Many organizations use member items for purposes that benefit their communities, such as a homeless shelter or senior citizen meals program. The process is flawed; the political party in power controls the distribution of member item funds so that the legislators in the majority party have a disproportionate amount of funds to dole out, despite representing the same number of New Yorkers. Since there are no standardized criteria, and member items are wholly dependent on an individual legislator’s level of power and discretion – it often leads to conflicts of interest, and unfortunately, scandals.

We have introduced legislation (S1681/A855) in the 2011 Session that addresses the problems plaguing the distribution of member items. The Galef/Serrano legislation establishes a system that puts member item funding above politics, minimizing the possibility for corruption.

Our legislation eliminates the current system, which is based on legislator largess instead state agency staff expertise, and often benefits the larger, long-established organizations to the detriment of the smaller, newer ones. The current system is replaced with one ensuring that member items are distributed to community organizations based on the needs of all New Yorkers – not just those living in the districts of powerful legislators.

This legislation establishes comprehensive standards. Even well-regarded non-profits could have administrative errors buried in their accounting books. Legislative Offices lack the staffing resources to properly vet every organization submitting a member item request and therefore, are ill- equipped to find such errors. The legislation creates a pre-clearance procedure through which the Attorney General’s Office verifies the legitimacy of each organization submitting a request. The new system also brings in the expertise of relevant state agency staff to assess each organization’s effectiveness.

This groundbreaking legislation requires the equitable distribution of member item monies to each legislator, regardless of political party. This would end the distribution of discretionary funds as a tool to win loyalty, ensuring that every district gets its fair share of the approximately $85 million that have been previously distributed in each House.

This legislation provides transparency and removes conflicts of interest. The Senate and Assembly will post a list of member item recipients online prior to the passage of a budget bill – giving ample time for public review. It requires legislators to sign, under penalty of perjury, a statement disavowing any relationship between them and the member item recipient.

Seventy-six legislators have signed onto this legislation, and good government organizations are supportive. Citizens Union, the League of Women Voters of New York State, and the New York Public Interest Research Group have spent years raising public awareness regarding the problems with the member item system, and were instrumental in creating this legislation.

It is imperative that we restore public trust and help New Yorkers feel proud of their government. The passage of this legislation is an important step towards accomplishing that goal.