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by Jay Gallagher

Tuesday, March 9, 2010

It's all in the numbers

Forty-three and 115. All of you reformers out there should remember those numbers, a leading reform advocate said today.

Oh yes, and one more number, too.

“Eighty percent of New Yorkers are getting ripped off,’’ said Blair Horner of the New York Public Interest Research Group.

Horner, the League’s Barbara Bartoletti, other reformers and lawmakers gathered today to push for a changes in the state’s $200 million member-item program of lawmakers and the governor doling out cash to organizations and projects in their districts.

The system has been a target of reformers for decades and little has changed. But this year something might actually happen, because “the public is really mad at us in every possible way,’’ said Assemblywoman (and former League activist) Sandra Galef, D-Ossining, Westchester County.

Horner pointed out some reasons for their wrath: former Assemblyman Brian McLaughlin, D-Queens, is now serving a 10-year prison sentence for, among other things, steering money from member items intended for Little League into his personal account. And testimony in last fall’s trial of former Senate Majority Leader Joseph Bruno showed that he used the funds for political purposes.

Lawmakers have resisted most changes in the past to the system. But Horner said emphasizing his numbers may make a difference this year. He said 43 out of 62 Senate members get less member-item funds than average, which is also the case for 115 of the 150 members of the Assembly. Thus, he said, 80 percent of voters are paying out to the other politically favored 20 percent.

“It’s a question of taxpayer dollars being spent fairly, and to make sure they go to groups that really need them,’’ said Sen. Jose Serrano Jr., D-Bronx, the Senate sponsor.

The bill he and Galef are pushing would require:

-- all lawmakers get the same amount of member-item money;
-- legislators to report any potential conflicts of interest with the grants;
-- the grant proposals to be made public t least 24 hours before they are approved by the Legislature;
-- all groups getting the money have to be vetted by the attorney general.

All of this may be moot this year, since it’s possible that facing a $9 billion budget hole lawmakers may not want to add $200 million in new spending.

But not necessarily.

“There have been discussions about whether there will be member items,’’ Galef said. Who knows?’’

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