The reform movement scored a major victory this past week on behalf of all state taxpayers, by helping to lift the veil of secrecy on member items and adding more openness to the budget process.
I was pleased to stand with my colleagues in the Senate as we demanded changes and used the power of our votes to improve transparency .
In recent years, the member item process had grown increasingly secretive. There was a time not long ago when these local legislative initiatives were listed line-by-line in the budget, fully accessible and understandable to the members of the public footing the bill. Unfortunately, these line items slowly became lump sums with few details and no public oversight.
When the Governor vetoed the $200 million pot listed in this year’s budget for "Community Projects," I was presented with the rare chance to vote on this undisclosed pork. My stand was simple, yet firm: I would not support a secretive pot of money that had virtually no oversight and no public accountability. In so doing, my Senate Democratic colleagues and I denied the Senate Majority the votes needed to override the Governor’s veto.
At the same time, I decided to make public the list of projects my office was able to support with taxpayer funds. It is important for all of us to remember that these member items are not individual lawmaker’s funds to be secretly distributed and leveraged for political gain. These member items are our tax dollars. And, the public has a right to know exactly to which organizations funds are distributed.
In negotiations, Minority Leader David Paterson succeeded in getting other leaders to release information on this year’s member items and to include detailed member item lists in future budgets.
This move does not end pork barrel spending. But the hope is that by opening this process, we will be able to eliminate wasteful spending and end political favors. As they say, sunlight is the best disinfectant.
We still have much work to do to eliminate waste and to end the secretive slush funds that have become business as usual in Albany. But this past week, we took an important step.