Thursday, April 02, 2009

Are we getting what we pay for in Albany?

By the time this goes to press, the State Legislature will most likely have adopted -- albeit a little late -- its record-breaking 2009-2010 budget: a $132 billion spending plan that raises total spending by more than $10 billion (8.5 percent) over last year.

The budget will include more than $170 million in so-called member items, most of which are and will remain unitemized in the budget documents. They will be doled out by members of the Senate and the Assembly, with little opportunity for advance public scrutiny, in proportion to the members' political muscle in the state capital. Basically, it's a $170 million slush fund for state legislators to use as they see fit.

This, quite understandably, has a lot of people oinking about "pork barrel spending" in Albany.

And while this practice is ripe for abuse by unscrupulous politicians (What? Unscrupulous politicians in Albany?), it's also something of a scapegoat and a distraction from what's really ailing the state's fiscal condition.

I'm certainly not defending the practice of legislators setting aside that kind of dough to be quietly divvied up behind closed doors in ways that reward supporters, spread good will on the home front and help ensure incumbents' re-election.

But -- time for a reality check, folks. That pretty much describes the entire budget process to a T, doesn't it? Closed-door meetings in which the state's power brokers divvy up the pot in ways that reward supporters and special interests, spread good will on the home front and help ensure incumbents' re-election. If this practice were limited to the $170 million in "member items," we taxpayers would have it made. Instead, Albany's long-standing budget-making tradition -- the practice of "three men in a room" brokering deals with millions -- uh, make that billions -- of our tax dollars, got worse instead of better under one-party rule in Albany this year, despite the Democrats' promises of open government, transparency and accountability. This year, now that Democrats have control of the Senate (tenuous as it may be) there was no counterbalance to Assembly Speaker Sheldon Silver. The other two men in the room -- a weak and ineffectual Gov. David Paterson and a weak and ineffectual Senate Majority Leader Malcom Smith -- went along to get along. They both need Silver to survive, politically. He was calling the shots all the way. When the deal was done, it was, as usual, presented for the inevitable rubber-stamping by the full chambers. And inevitable it is.

The State Senate's Web site has the various budget documents posted for public inspection. That's a good thing, of course. But I dare you to go make sense -- real sense -- of any of it. Color me crazy. I tried. I scrolled through hundreds of pages of appropriations bills and budget schedules. Lots and lots of numbers for countless numbers of programs, agencies and budget lines. Numbers so big, they begin to lose meaning. A 100 million here, 200 million there, pretty soon you're talking real money. It's genuinely mind-boggling.

One thing that stuck with me following my attempt to understand the state budget deal: It costs New York taxpayers nearly $200 million just to fund the operations of the State Legislature. Member and staff salaries, stipends and fringe benefits, travel, supplies, printing and postage (to send us those attractive, well-timed "legislative reports" just before the biennial elections, boasting about what a fine job they're doing fighting to protect taxpayers). Then there's overhead, like utilities, "telephone and telegraph" -- telegraph? really? -- and millions in unspecified "contractual expenses." So many questions, so many numbers, so little time and opportunity for answers. For instance, since taxpayers are spending upwards of $145 million on member and staff salaries and benefits, why are we also spending $13 million on something called the legislative bill drafting commission? Isn't bill drafting part of the members' jobs? And what about more than $900,000 for the "legislative messenger service" or the $213,000 for the "legislative health service?" That's more than $1 million to run documents and dispense aspirin for our "representatives."

Why are we spending so much dough on 212 legislators, their staffs and all the bells and whistles that go along with it, when, in the end, it all comes down to what one man, Manhattan Democrat Sheldon Silver, wants, anyway? The rest is all window dressing. Very expensive window dressing.

So in a budget that eliminated STAR property tax rebates and failed to address inequities in state aid to education, I'll take those local member items, thank you very much. They represent a few crumbs relative to what we send to Albany, but at least it's something.

Ms. Civiletti invites you to join a discussion of this topic at Her e-mail address is