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Critics claim old practices are returning to state legislature

State lawmakers said a few years ago that they would  no longer permit the controversial member item program to continue, but  critics say the old system, which gave taxpayer money to legislators’ pet projects, is being revived in a new form.

In 2010, then Governor David Paterson and state lawmakers ended the controversial practice of members items, which in Congress is called earmarks. The funds historically  gave favored lawmakers money for pet projects in their districts.   Some lawmakers went too far with their privileges and funneled funds into not for profit entities that employed their relatives.

Among those who abused the process, former Senate Leader Pedro Espada, of the Bronx, who is serving prison time.  Even seemingly innocent grants to worthy community groups were in some cases subverted .

Former Assemblyman Brian McLaughlin of Queens skimmed $95,000 out of what was supposed to be a fund for his local Little League teams. He told a court that he used the money instead to pay for personal expenses. He also went to jail.

Now, questions have been raised about a new source of money that may still be used for lawmakers’ favored projects. It’s from a fund known as the State and Municipal Facilities Program, set up in 2013 by Governor Cuomo and the legislature to fund capital projects. Over one billion dollars has been borrowed so far. But there’s  little information about actual projects.

“From the very start, it’s clearly been looming as the next  big capital pork pot,”McMahon said.

EJ McMahon with the fiscal think tank The Empire Center, used the state’s freedom of information laws to get the list of projects, and he says it looks at lot like the old member items.  

News organizations including Politco New York picked up on the story, and found that the political parties in power in the legislature got a larger share of the money. While Democrats who control the Assembly received $34 million in projects, Assembly Republicans got just $2 million.

Assembly Speaker Carl Heastie defended the spending, saying it’s for worthy projects, including one in his own district.

“You want to call putting security cameras in a housing development that has a lot of crime, so be it,” Heastie said recently. “Give me another ham sandwich.”

The Senator who received the most money from the fund is the leader of its smallest faction, the Independent Democrats. Senator Jeff Klein has been a power broker between the chamber’s Democrats and Republicans, at one point teaming up with the GOP, to form a governing coalition. Klein’s district got over $11 million dollars ,  for upgrades to parks and sports facilities, more than any other Senator. Republican Senate Majority Leader, John Flanagan, defended Klein’s projects, saying all were vetted by agencies within the Cuomo Administration.

“I work well with Jeff Klein,” said Flanagan. “He obviously has a penchant and a talent for picking out good projects in his area.”

Senate Democrats, who are in the minority in the chamber, so far have received nothing. Flanagan says those allocations were made before he became leader in May, after the previous leader was arrested on corruption charges, and that he’s going to take another look at the distribution of the funds.

Governor Cuomo, who helped lead the movement to get rid of member items when he was Attorney General, got somewhat testy when asked about the program, saying that the projects funded from the State Municipal Facilities Program are nothing like the old member items.

“Critics say a lot of things,” Cuomo said. “But that’s not what it is.”

The governor also has an answer to why majority party legislators saw more funds go to their districts.

“The majority has more power in the legislature, yeah,” Cuomo said. “That’s what’s called being in the majority”.

McMahon with the Empire Center, says he’s not surprised by the response of Cuomo and lawmakers.

“They’d love to have an enormous pile of ham sandwiches, and that’s what they’ve got here,” McMahon said. “They’ve got the whole pig.”

A spokesman for the governor’s budget office, Morris Peters, told public radio over the summer that reports, including the Empire Center’s assessment of how the grants are distributed, are not entirely accurate. Peters said that the grant applications are subject to a “rigorous agency review process” and must also be ultimately approved by the budget office. He said the program is similar to state appropriations for roads and bridges and other infrastructure.

Karen DeWitt is Capitol Bureau Chief for New York State Public Radio, a network of 10 public radio stations in New York State. WBFO listeners are accustomed to hearing DeWitt’s insightful coverage throughout the day, including expanded reports on Morning Edition.