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Wednesday, April 6, 2011

No Room For Pork in Cuomo's Budget

It's a political practice as well-established as candidates kissing babies: a local legislator shows up at a senior center or an elementary school, giant check in hand, to announce that he'll be funding a daily meals program or buying new uniforms for the spring soccer team.

There's a photo-op and everyone leaves feeling good--the politician gets to be the hero, and the local organization gets some much-needed money.

Gov. Andrew Cuomo's bare-bones budget for this fiscal year, approved March 31, contains no funding for new member items--the public money given to state senators and assembly members that allows them to hand out all those big checks in their respective districts. These discretionary funds, or "pork," have often been criticized as wasteful spending, and for a few politicians, have been a source of scandal.

But local legislators say the loss of member item money will, ultimately, only hurt their communities; that the ones taking the hit are the local organizations and services that rely on support from elected officials to stay afloat.

"Local legislators know the needs of their districts better than faceless bureaucrats in Albany," said Assemblyman Jeffrey Dinowitz, in an e-mail. "The groups I fund -- youth programs, senior centers, arts and music groups and others -- all play a valuable role in our community and its quality of life."

Community groups have, indeed, had it tough the last few years. Gov. Paterson also vetoed member items last year in retaliation for the legislature's failure to pass a budget on time, and this year, Congress also banned federal earmark funds.

"It's just a very bad time right now," Don Bluestone, director of the Mosholu Montefiore Community Center, told the Norwood News last month. 

The center runs dozens of after-school sites, a senior citizen center, and other programs serving more than 28,000 Bronxites each year. The loss of member items, federal earmarks and other funding cuts has added up to almost $1 million in losses this year, Bluestone said, and forced him to cut program hours and lay off staff.

"Right now it's just scaling back all programs," he said, "but at what point does the viability of the agency come into play?"

Eric Stevenson, a first-term state senator representing East Tremont and other neighborhoods in the south Bronx, said he'd planned to give his expected $100,000 in member item money to local tutoring and after-school programs and a cash-strapped little league, some of the same organizations that his predecessor, Michael Benjamin, had funded over the years.

"I know very well that they relied on this money," Stevenson said. “[Cutting] member items is just pulling the rug from out their feet.”


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