ALBANY — In the final days of closed-door budget negotiations, Democratic legislative leaders and Gov. Kathy Hochul approved hundreds of grants, traditionally known as “member items,” directed back to legislators’ districts this election year.
Those include $5 million to build a soccer stadium for the Rochester Rhinos and $11 million to build the Universal Hip Hop Museum in the Bronx, as well as special capital funds such as $350 million for Long Island that didn’t identify any specific projects.
Supporters of this spending defend it as a strategic use of hundreds of millions of dollars in state funding and note that all legislators get varying levels of aid that they say allows them to fund projects that improve services in their districts. Legislators say they know the needs of their districts best and are in regular contact with constituents to discover their needs.
“This is about projects that will have real generational impact,” said Assemb. Steve Stern (D-Huntington). He said he seeks state funding for his district after consultation with community leaders. “These are items of local significance. The best decisions come from our neighbors.”
Some of the legislator-directed items in the stat budget include:
- $108 million to redevelop the Kingsbridge Armory in the Bronx, a huge 1917 armory that has defied several plans including the world’s largest indoor ice rink.
- $1 million for the Bethel Woods Performing Arts Center, a 16,000-seat amphitheater and museum at the site of the Woodstock concert in 1969.
- $1.5 million for the East Government Parking District in Utica “or for other projects of the Upper Mohawk Valley Memorial Auditorium Authority.”
- $1 million for Old Fort Niagara, a 1726 French fort build on Lake Ontario that is a historic tourist attraction.
- $1 million for the Stanley Theater, a historic Baroque movie palace built in 1928 that is now a performance venue in downtown Utica.
- $3 million for the renovation of the former Fulton Correctional Facility, a seven-story former prison in the Bronx being converted to a transitional reentry housing for formerly incarcerated people.
- $8 million for a Rochester parking garage,
- $8.5 million for the Landmark Theater for the Performing Arts in Syracuse that is a venue for music and shows.
- $30 million to “encourage the revitalization of Onondaga Lake and its surrounding communities,” a 19th century tourist destination near Syracuse that once been closed to swimming and fishing because of industrial pollution and sewage. The lake reopened to fishing in 1986, with consumption advisories.
Opponents say this “pork-barrel spending” is no way to handle taxpayers’ money. They argue it has bloated the state’s massive budgets, including the one approved April 9 that grew by $8 billion over the 2021-22 budget. This election year is an uncommon time because state budget revenues are at record highs, thanks to one-time federal aid to help recover from the COVID-19 pandemic and state tax collections that surpassed projections. But critics say the spending is steered by political need for legislators and governors — which will be highlighted in numerous news conferences before Election Day — rather than a public, objective test of need.
“We have often seen these discretionary funds — and the publicity surrounding them once they are publicly announced — are used to bolster the image of elected officials in an effort to curry favor with voters,” said Blair Horner, executive director of the New York Public Interest Research Group.
Member items and large pots of money not publicly identified also have been at the heart of Albany’s string of scandals. Those incidents now include allegations leveled Tuesday against Lt. Gov. Brian Benjamin. He is accused by the U.S. attorney’s office of a scheme in which he used a $50,000 state grant to channel contributions to his campaign. Benjamin resigned April 12.
“These big lump sums limit public accountability and have been abused in the past,” Horner said, noting the budget also failed to restore some of the accountability of spending through oversight by the state comptroller.
The $350 million “Long Island Investment Fund” is just one of the latest lump-sum capital funds created in the budget without public notice. It was created and agreed to in the waning days of closed-door negotiations between Hochul, Senate Majority Leader Andrea Stewart-Cousins and Assembly Speaker Carl Heastie.
The budget doesn’t narrow the use down much: The state money will pay for “services and expenses, loans, grants, and costs of program administrations related to purposes that may include, but not be limited to, support of manufacturing, agriculture, business parks, community anchor facilities, advanced technology, biotechnology and biomedical facilities, and Main Street revitalization.”
Long Island legislators say they expect to have a say in picking the projects with the Empire State Development agency, which operates under the direction of the governor.
Many other member-item budget lines are just as vague. Some refer only to “local community priority projects,” “theater and performance venues,” and “cultural, arts and public spaces fund.” Another provides $12.7 million for “other projects to be determined pursuant to a plan to be developed by the director of the budget in consultation with the speaker of the Assembly.” Another $73.6 million similarly requires consultation with the Senate’s Democratic majority leader.
The Hochul administration defended the process in this, her first state budget.
“The state budget is a critical source of funds for infrastructure and institutions that keep local communities strong,” said Hazel Crampton-Hays, spokeswoman for Hochul. “The governor and the legislature work to reflect local priorities and needs in the budget for matters such as health care, education, job creation, safe water, roads and bridges, and other critical infrastructure. These achievements wouldn’t be possible without state investment and the annual budget process includes public input, public hearings, and other layers of transparency, accountability and oversight.”
The projects, once chosen, will be detailed in the administration’s new Database of Economic Incentives, Crampton-Hays said.
Here's how the member item process works:
- Legislators propose several requests to their Democratic or Republican conference leader in the Assembly and Senate. The leader further winnows the lists.
- The Democratic majority leaders of the Senate and Assembly then take the lists, including items from the Republican minority conferences, into budget negotiations each spring with the governor.
- There, the final list is chosen in closed-door negotiations based on the funding set aside for these local projects.
“The way that budgeting should work is by identifying your needs, counting the resources available to pay for them, and matching them up to maximize value,” said Patrick Orecki, director of state studies for the independent Citizens Budget Commission.
Orecki also said a lump sum fund like the Long Island Investment Fund is a concern that could lead to waste and excessive politicization.
"Divvying the money up later on makes it even more susceptible to political forces rather than rigorous policy choices," Orecki said. "When a lump sum pot like this has been appropriated, it's now free to be spent quickly, broadly and unilaterally."
The public isn’t alone in knowing little about budget items such as $10 million for The Mohawk Harbor Events Center in Schenectady or $20 million for work at the Carrier Dome, home of Syracuse University basketball. Many legislators are just as much in the dark on spending until a budget is adopted, including Long Island legislators who were unaware of the $350 million Long Island fund.
“From what I can gather, this fund was added by one of the majorities during the final negotiations, as it wasn’t present in the executive budget proposal or the Assembly one-house proposal,” said Assemb. Edward Ra (R-Rockville Centre). “While I generally have no problem with using the state budget for local needs, it is my belief that grant recipients in these types of funds should be lined out individually in the budget as a matter of basic transparency.”
Others, particularly those in the Democratic majorities of the Senate and Assembly that negotiate the budget with the governor, defend the use of member items and big funds, despite the scant details available even to them.
“My understanding is that these funds will be distributed by (the Empire State Development Agency) for various projects throughout the region,” said Assemb. Kimberly Jean-Pierre (D- Wyandanch). “I know every legislator could probably rattle off a handful of suitable projects in their respective districts. Personally, I would love to be able to secure funding for a new academic building at SUNY Farmingdale.”
“I have no issue with fighting for targeted local needs in the state budget, especially for areas that need it most,” Jean-Pierre said of member items.
She and Stern said it was their priority to get more funding for Long Island under another state budget tradition of providing “parity” spending among regions. “It was absolutely essential that Long Island get its fair share in the budget,” Stern said.
But good-government groups said this practice also drives up budget costs based on political needs. For example, this year, Hochul secured $600 million in aid and tax breaks to help build a new stadium for the Buffalo Bills, and several legislators said that led to more funding for Long Island to maintain a sense of parity.
The Long Island fund was developed late in negotiations when it appeared that Long Island wasn’t getting its fair share in the budget, although there were no details on how it would be spent, said Sen. James Gaughran (D-Northport).
“My understanding is it’s all to be determined,” Gaughran said.
He said he hopes to snare part of the fund to help pay for clean water and filtration projects needed by several communities.
As for member items, he said his grants this year are expected to include funds for a children’s reading room. Past member items have paid for village storm resiliency projects, equipment for local fire and police departments and schools, libraries, and repairs to American Legion halls. This week he was scheduled to hand out awards to students who participated in a trial in a mock courtroom paid for by a past member item.
Gaughran said he understands the concerns of good-government groups about this spending, but said he is transparent in handling the grants.
“We are very selective in making sure that we spend it on the best municipal use that is necessary,” he said. “My job is to try to get as much resources as I can for the communities I represent.”