Can you hear me now?

Posted by & filed under CGR Staff, Rochester Business Journal.

Kent GardnerBack in 2002, CGR reported on the many buildings around the state bearing the names of elected officials. To illustrate our point, we included a picture of the Joseph L. Bruno Stadium at Hudson Valley Community College, built with $14 million contributed by the generosity of then Senate Majority Leader Bruno. Of course, he was being generous with OUR money.

Bruno Statium

Bruno Stadium

In hindsight, it was risky to use the Bruno example. A political friend told me what he’d have done to me had he been on Bruno’s staff. Standards of decency and editorial policy prevent me from saying more.

A lot of money flows to community projects through the goodwill of legislators. The NYS Legislature has long divvied up $200 million in “member item” cash—money from the annual budget that can be allocated by a member of the legislature with no more process than the permission of his or her political leader. In 2006, my colleague Erika Rosenberg reported that the problem extended to several billion dollars in additional money that was borrowed to fund projects sponsored by individual members. We called these funds “Capital Pork.”

Not long ago the individual grants could be kept secret. Fortunately, court cases have forced these records into the light. While sunlight (and more diligent overview by the Attorney General) limit outright fraud, these sums still confer tremendous power on incumbents to curry favor with specific constituents and interest groups. Yes, $200 million is pocket change in a budget of $124 billion. But the power to award—hundreds of times each year—$10,000 here or $5,000 there is considerable.

As voters, we have not put a stop to this corrosive practice. Perhaps we’re hooked on the pork. As members of the majority party in the NYS Senate, senators Alesi, Nozzolio and Robach have been able to be very successful at “bringing home the bacon,” on the hoof and squealing. According to the Attorney General’s Project Sunlight website (see http://www.sunlightny.com), Senators Alesi and Nozzolio each conferred grants totaling $2.15 million in the current fiscal year. Senator Alesi distributed the money in 119 separate grants in sums ranging from $2,000 to $100,000. Senator Nozzolio’s grants were fewer—67 grants ranging from $3,000 to $100,000. To bolster a re-election bid expected to be competitive, Senator Robach got the most, $2.55 million which he distributed to 127 organizations.

Now that the Republicans have lost the majority, their legislators will each be cut back to a rasher of bacon. Consider that Senator Ruben Diaz Sr. of the Bronx, as a Democrat, received a paltry $300,000 this year. Brooklyn’s Carl Kruger did better at $800,000. It is easy to see why these two are making a power play during the leadership change (google “Gang of Four” if you haven’t been following this soap opera). There is big money at stake. Just for starters, the leadership can offer these mavericks an increase in member item money of roughly $2 million. Not bad money in exchange for voting for a Republican for Majority Leader. And then there are the committee assignments, staff budgets and other perks. That’s the way the game is played.

The Democrat-controlled Assembly uses the same rules, but plays with lower stakes. Assemblyman Joe Morelle, Monroe County Democratic Party Chair, brought home $555,000 for 2008-09 while his Republican Party counterpart, Assemblyman Bill Reilich, had only $110,000 to spread around.

With the keys to the Senate’s cashbox now passing into Democratic hands, Republican areas like Rochester will lose out to Democratic strongholds like NYC. Our Senate delegation’s largesse will be reduced to a shadow of its former self. Instead of nearly $7 million in grants to this or that organization, we’ll be fortunate to break a million. Given the sorry state of New York’s budget, even this is probably wishful thinking.

In the rough and tumble of NYS politics, the system is still corrupt with the playing field tipped dangerously toward the party in power. Can you hear me now?

Kent Gardner, Ph.D. President & Chief Economist
Published in the Rochester (NY) Business Journal November 14, 2008

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