The Two Kinds of Pork

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In New York, pork-barrel spending comes two ways: as cash or capital. Lawmakers fund cash pork out of current revenue and pay for capital pork out of borrowed funds. One kind of pork has gotten a lot of attention, while the other kind has been largely ignored — even though the state spends a lot more of your money this way.

Gov. Eliot Spitzer and legislative leaders have recently promised to disclose the cash “member items” in the state budget. Basic information about each grant will be listed, as opposed to the current practice of including a lump sum in the budget and figuring out the details of who gets what later.

The sum has totaled $200 million a year in recent years, doled out to Little Leagues, nonprofit organizations, community groups, health organizations – many sympathetic causes. The criticism of good-government groups has always been that while the recipients may be worthy, the process is tainted because it happens behind closed doors, without any public accounting for who wins and who loses and why. Also, majority party members in each house (Democrats in the Assembly and Republicans in the Senate) get far more to spend.

But this is chicken feed compared to what happens on the borrowed side—what we’ve called “capital pork.”

Billions more are handed out using a process that is more secretive, more tightly controlled by legislative leaders and unknown to all but a small circle of watchdog groups and reporters. What’s worse, the money that’s distributed adds to New York’s already crushing debt burden (we owe $11,377 for every person in New York in state and local debt, according to the Public Policy Institute’s statistics for 2004).

Since the practice began in 1997, New York has authorized $4.3 billion in borrowing for projects chosen by the governor and legislative leaders (at least, according to what I’ve been able to put together from various sources – no one issues press releases on such things). The state has committed most of the total to specific projects — about $3.5 billion – largely thanks to an election-year spending spree last year that ate up $1.8 billion.

Where does the money go? The largest grants to date have been directed at high-tech businesses: $650 million to Advanced Micro Devices for a computer-chip plant in Saratoga County and $260 million to IBM for a plant in Dutchess County. Grants have gone to universities, businesses, local governments, professional sports teams, libraries, high-tech centers, schools, churches – and yes, some Little Leagues in the state get a cut of this money too.

And there’s the rub: Which Little Leagues? In 2003, a $250,000 grant went to rehabilitate a Little League field in Lynbrook, Nassau County. How many Little Leagues are in there in the state that could use a quarter-million dollars to improve their fields? And how many do you think got it? Who decides and on what basis? No one has ever bothered to explain that to New Yorkers.

And what’s to stop a legislator from directing money – cash or capital – to friends, relatives or campaign contributors? Nothing but his or her own conscience, which some recent cases show isn’t always enough. State Sen. Efrain Gonzalez Jr. and former Assemblyman Brian McLaughlin have both been charged criminally and accused of steering member items to groups with which they were cozy, then taking some of the money for themselves.

Spitzer will release his recommended state budget this week, and folks are chomping at the bit to see what he does about health-care spending, money for schools, taxes and wide variety of priorities. Also telling will be what the budget says about pork, and not just the cash kind.

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