Monday, February 06, 2006

Our State Legislators and Their Slush Fund

Did we say slush fund?
Actually the pile of cash just sitting around is called "Members Items."
Members Items are a wonderful incumbant re-election tool available to New York State Senators and Assembly-members in both parties to dole out cash in thier districts.
Ever see Chuck Fuschillo or Dean Skelos hand out some over-sized check like the one Senator Kemp Hannon is handing out below?
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That's a "Members Item" check.
You would think that state legislators are fighting hard to bring money to the district. I fact, they just make a request for $2000, $5000, $10,000 etc, have an over-sized check printed up and arrive for a photo-op like heroes. They are not putting the items they are getting money for in the NYS budget but pulling money from this slush fund. And it doesn't take much to get the cash.
Azi over at the Fifth Estate blog has an exchange between Sen. Balboni and former Nassau republican County Executive candidate Bruce Bent at a panel discussion.

"When Manhattan Insittute released their scathing report on Albany, State Senator Michael Balboni got into an interesting exchange about member items with Nassau businessman Bruce Bent who had a suggestion about what to do with all that money.

Michael Balboni: "Put yourself, ladies and gentlemen, in my shoes for just a second, and Seymour [Lachman's, fellow panelist and former legislator]. If you arrive in Albany...and they say, okay, here's an allocation of dollars. You can spend it in your district and we're not going to spend it on a statewide basis, and we're going to do it individual[ly]. "It's almost like an independent contractor. You're in charge of your district and meeting the needs, and this is member items. And the problem with member items is that it's not done on a statewide basis. They vote on it, but they don't really get into the nuisances, and they don't do the individual evaluation of the allocations like Bruce is saying."But what are you going to do? Not spend the money? Now wait a minute. Now wait a minute. If I didn't support the district, then we're not doing a Mineola Downtown Revitalization Project. We're not doing the elimination of the grade-crossing program. We're not doing the Roslyn Viaduct. So I can point to 70 or 80 programs that were crucial, transportation programs, that I was able to support within the district."

Bruce Bent: "Put them in the budget."

Balboni: "They are in the budget."

Bent: "But the state treasury is not a cookie jar."

Balboni: "It's not a cookie jar, but why do you vote for somebody to get into office? So they go to Albany and let somebody else take the money away from us?"

Bent: "Take it away from all of them."

Balboni: "And do what with it?"

Bent: "Reduce our taxes!"

Balboni: "I voted for a tax increase once in 17 years Bruce and you know that. Once. It was a temporary tax. I voted for more tax reductions than anybody in this room. So don't tell me about voting for tax cuts. But the problem is this: how do you design a better system. We always talk about the member items and the pork but we never talk about a better way to allocate it. I'll go with a better way..."

Moments later, Seymour added:"I am opposed to member items...I think they cause more harm then good...I've been asked to be a member of the other party and I was offered more member items. That is outrageous."

We agree with Bent and Seymour. Put the money back into the budget and then get each item as a budget allocation. At a time when we have problems funding schools and we are being crushed by medicaid costs maybe the "Members Items" cash can be used for that.
The slush fund and the over-sized checks are a re-election tool. The money is more like a taxpayer provided campaign contribution.
Balboni says "We always talk about the member items and the pork but we never talk about a better way to allocate it. I'll go with a better way..."
Maybe he can step up to the plate and offer a better way.
The first way would be to kill the "Members Items."

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