New York's pork-barrel spending

February 4, 2009 6:13:27 PM PST
The Eyewitness News Investigators took a close look at how state lawmakers are spending your tax dollars at a time when we can least afford it.Hundreds of millions of dollars in political pork, handed out while New York's deficit climbs into the billions.

Jim Hoffer has spent months looking into the lawmakers lard. He has the story.

The amount of pork would give Oscar Mayer a run for the money. It includes $20,000 for a trolley in Newburgh, $15,000 for synchronized swimming in Long Island, and $110,000 to study the Staten Island Ferry.

It is a never-ending list of politicians' pet projects that you paid for.

Hoffer: "You want to prioritize spending?"
Brooklyn Senator Marty Golden: "Sure."

Senator Golden is all for fiscal responsibility.

"Spending," he said. "Cap it."

Except when it comes to his district. That's when the state senator loves to spend.

There are shiny new sidewalk benches, vase-shaped trash receptacles and colorful banners, all paid for by hundreds of thousands of dollars in pork barrel grants doled out by the senator to a neighborhood improvement group.

Hoffer: "Is that a smart way for the state that's facing a $6 billion deficit to spend its money?"
Golden: "It is, and I will tell you why. The small business is the backbone of our city and state."

Senator Golden has also given taxpayers grants to the Regina Opera Company. He gave $2,000 this year for equipment and supplies, and $60,000 in the past two years for summer concerts starring Liza Minelli and the B-52's.

"That's what keeps the community alive," Golden said. "That what's keeps the people involved. And that's what we are trying to do and will continue to do."

Hoffer: "On the one hand, you are calling for a spending cap for the education department, for the state police, for the Department of Health, for all the agencies in the state. But you also say that you should be able to have your free concerts and your funding for opera."
Golden: "Everything is prioritizing."
Hoffer: "How is that prioritizing?"
Golden: "Well, I will tell you right now that if there's cuts across the board, there will be cuts in items, that's a no-brainer."

Senator Golden is no different than most other New York state lawmakers when it comes to passing out the pork. We spent months looking through documents. Each page of the more than 4,000 pages represents a taxpayer-funded grant doled out this year by state lawmakers. There are $300 million in pet projects. That can go a long way come election time.

"This is basically re-election insurance," fiscal watchdog E.J. McMahon said. "They have their photos taken handing over their checks to people...And they expect that goodwill will flow back to them at election time."

Although the state faces a $6 billion deficit, State Assemblyman Philip Ramos gave $50,000 to build a reflection garden in Bayshore. State Senator Carl Marcellino gave $30,000 to the Cold Spring Fish Hatchery and Aquarium.

Also, a Manhattan acting group got $75,000 from State Senator Malcom Smith.

State Senator Frank Padavan again this year gave the Queens County Farm Museum $110,000. The list seems endless. It includes $30,000 for tri-centennial banners, $10,000 for the American Carp Society and $35,000 for the Harness Racing Museum and Hall of Fame in Goshen.

And often, the organizations getting the big grants are generous donors to the lawmakers re-election efforts. Senator John Banacic has given $75,000 each of the past two years to the Gerry Foundation to pay for park benches and landscaping throughout Sullivan County. In turn, the Gerry family has been big donors to the senator's re-election campaigns, giving more than $20,000 in the past three years.

"Who you know is still the most powerful force in political life," McMahon said. "So people who know a legislator in one way or another can be expected to have influence in getting these kinds of grants."

And remember the business group that has received more than $1 million during the past five years from Senator Golden for beautification? Financial disclosure records show the treasurer of that organization and its director have donated nearly $8,000 to the senator's campaigns.

Hoffer: "That's the way it operates. Organizations get money, organizations and the people who run them then donate back to the re-election campaign of state lawmakers?"
Golden: "I do not believe that that is the purpose and should not be the purpose. I have explained to you why people donate to me, because of the good service that I do and the hard work that I do for the community."

There is very little oversight of these grants. The only requirement is that the money be used for some "public purpose."