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Long IslandPolitics

New York, Suffolk County, Feds try to limit earmarks for lawmakers

All have taken steps to rein in spending on projects for individual lawmakers' constituents.

As Nassau continues to earmark small amounts of funding for projects in individual county legislators' districts, New York State, Suffolk County and Congress all have taken steps to try to rein in such spending.

In New York, the traditional state member item program, the Community Projects Fund, has authorized no new appropriations since Gov. Andrew M. Cuomo took office in 2011, said Morris Peters, a spokesman for the state budget division.

Since then, the state has approved local development projects through the 10 Regional Economic Development Councils, which are public-private partnerships, following a competitive screening process, Peters said.

The Long Island council has delivered $639.1 million for 791 projects. The council also issues reports about the status of individual projects, disclosing whether projects were completed, terminated, are "moving slowly" or have "potential problems."

Also, the State Legislature or executive branch can nominate capital projects under the State and Municipal Program, according to the governor's office.

Suffolk officially eliminated its member item program in the 2012 budget, a county spokesman said. The legislature traditionally had $630,000 — or $35,000 for each of the 18 county legislators — to award to various groups, from sports leagues to soup kitchens.

“Because of the budget constraints at the time, we had decided to eliminate those funds,” said Legis. DuWayne Gregory (D-Copiague), the chamber's presiding officer. “It hurt a lot of groups, or at least some, because they almost became very reliant on the funding. We try to tell groups this is not funding you should be relying on.”

Suffolk County can still distribute $500,000 annually through its Downtown Revitalization Program. A committee, with members appointed by county legislators, scores and ranks projects based on worthiness. 

In 2018, the county received 18 applications for grants, 11 of which were funded. Winners included chambers of commerce, taxing jurisdictions and other groups that applied to spruce up their downtowns with decorative crosswalks, pedestrian paths, parking lot redesigns and sidewalks and lights.

Perhaps the best known earmark of all time was dubbed the "bridge to nowhere" — a moniker for a $223 million project to connect Ketchikan, Alaska, to an airport at Gravina Island, Alaska, which has a population of 50 people.

The project became an issue during the 2008 presidential campaign when Sarah Palin, the Republican nominee for vice president, said that as Alaska governor, she had "told the Congress, thanks, but no thanks on that Bridge to Nowhere."

However, Palin chose to use the $200 million Congress originally had set aside for the bridge for other transportation projects, The Washington Post wrote.

In 2011, congressional leaders called for a moratorium on earmarking funds for small, local projects in the federal budget.

But earmarks have proved tenacious. Citizens Against Government Waste, a Washington, D.C., nonprofit that tracks federal spending on member items, reported that spending on earmarks in 2018 totaled $14.7 billion, up from $6.8 billion the year before.


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