Wednesday, May 07, 2008

Pork and Potatoes

Many, many voices--elected officials, reformers and editorial pages alike--have weighed in with disdain about the allocation of pet projects in the federal and state budgets, known as member items here at home. Last week, the Senate and Assembly released their member item data, renewing calls from around the state for change. It's worth summarizing the reaction from many points of view:

The practice is bad from a budget standpoint. In a year when lawmakers were trying to find something, anything, to cut from the budget, many say it's irresponsible to allow legislators to dole out pork like any other year. As the Press & Sun-Bulletin notes, "Defenders of the cash piles argue that the 'discretionary items' they finance are small potatoes in a $122 billion budget. True, but those were our potatoes to begin with." Attorney General Cuomo's office is stepping up to try to eradicate outright corruption, but especially in a fiscal crunch, shouldn't we expect our elected officials to be a bit more careful with our tax dollars?

The practice is fundamentally unfair to districts that elect members of the minority party. Even if you agree that legislators should have some small pot of money to give to the most worthy causes in their districts, there is no excuse for partisan distribution of member items. The population of each legislative district is constitutionally required to be substantially equal, yet NYPIRG found that the average Assembly Republican doles out a mere quarter of the amount received by the district of the average Democrat. The Senate disparity is even worse, with Senate Republicans taking home eight times the pork of the average Democrat.

The practice is wholly political. As NYPIRG's numbers show, legislative leaders not only funnel more funding to majority members, but they also prioritize within their own conferences to help their most vulnerable members. Democratic senators are also talking about severely limited member item funding for Republicans if control of the Senate flips this fall. The current practice is despicable and its continuation after a Democratic takeover would be equally deplorable.

We second the notion that it's time New Yorkers received real equality and accountability in member items. Whether pork or potatoes, the distribution ought to be based on the worthiness of the project, not the political power of the individual representative and majority party.

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