When a recruit asked a dumb question of a superior back in my Navy days, the answer barked back would be something like, “Is a pig’s ass pork?”
Some things are just obvious. In my view, political pork by any other name is still pork. What used to be called “member items” is now called SAM (State and Municipal funding). SAM is dispensing pork to state legislators, on borrowed money yet.
According to a Times Herald–Record report, some $385 million per year in borrowed money has been doled out across 213 legislative districts over the last four years. Fairly distributed, which it isn’t, that comes to about $1.8 million for each district. As water will find its level, career politicians will always find a way to funnel public money where it will do the most good, for their constituents and for them.
That’s not necessarily a bad thing. Lots of worthy local projects get funded that way. The problem is the secretive, selective, insider-controlled process.
Let’s go to the Record report of July 3 headlined: “Who Hands Out the Most Pork?” Subhead: “Hidden programs fuel millions in grants.”
Next to a photo of a pigpen full of future bacon, the paper ran photos of state senators John Bonacic ($5.2 million) and Bill Larkin ($2.9 million) and Sullivan County Assemblywoman Aileen Gunther ($2.7 million). Inside pages featured Assemblyman Frank Skartados ($1.6 million), state Sen. George Amedore ($812,000), and Assemblyman Kevin Cahill ($412,000).
Diligent investigative reporting in league with Albany good-government watchdogs doesn’t always connect the dots. Across the page from the $412,000 in SAM funding Cahill obtained was a notation of the $2.1 million Cahill secured for the proposed Irish Cultural Center on Abeel Street in Kingston.
Truly, it is said, there are many pots, many fingers and many ways to dip. There are also knuckles. Members who don’t play ball with leadership might find their requests for hometown pork delayed or ignored.
To the victors go the spoils, of course, which means majority members receive many times more than the minority. Five-term Assemblyman Pete Lopez and his Republican colleagues get $100,000 a year, barely more than their salaries. Similar political discrimination is practiced against minority Democrats in the state Senate.
Don’t expect reform
For recipient pols, as elections show year after year, the benefits are substantial. From front-page news releases to ribbon cutting/ground breaking photo-ops, he or she who brings home the pork is returned again to office, if only to get more.
Cahill, now halfway through his 20th year and as such the longest-serving assemblyman in local history (Maurice Hinchey did 18), defended the system in a Record interview, but expressed exasperation “with multiple layers of scrutiny” from executive-branch bean counters (my phrase).
Sometimes, the Record reported, Cahill says he “hesitates to request grants,” akin to sneaking dawn past a rooster.
There is something to say for giving these decisions to local legislators, who for the most part know far more about their districts than faceless bureaucrats buried in a back office in the Corning Towers. But these people are picking winners and losers with taxpayer money, borrowed money at that.
Calls for reform will fall on deaf ears where it really counts. Not to exceed normal skepticism, but does anybody see any change in how the state legislature operates under new leadership installed by what amounted to court order last year? Other than nobody else has gone to jail, lately?
Political patronage, like campaign financing, is here to stay. The only hope is to track it accurately. That’s not happening now.
Democratic candidate Sara Niccoli didn’t mention it in the numerous press releases announcing her run for state Senate against George Amedore, but the Palatine town supervisor doesn’t recite the pledge of allegiance prior to board meetings. As she now undoubtedly appreciates, running for state office in a hotly-contested swing district attracts a lot of attention, illuminating if not exaggerating one’s record. And for some folks, taking the pledge — or not — is serious, serious business, as the web firestorm this incident generated, demonstrated last week.
A similar controversy over the pledge in regard to New Paltz’s town planning board not so long ago played out in a far more civilized manner. People aired their differences, sometimes passionately, but nobody that I heard of acted in a “vile and vicious manner” (Niccoli) or threatened anybody.
Niccoli’s explanation of her actions regarding the pledge was not, as one might have expected, based on freedom of expression but on another constitutional guarantee, freedom of religion. Niccoli, 38, wife and mother, is a practicing Quaker. Like many in her faith, she takes literally the Biblical admonition from Matthew 5:34 that “you make no oath at all” except to God.
Niccoli stands for the pledge, but owing to what her spokesperson calls “religious convictions” does not recite the words.
Taking an oath seems a matter of personal choice among Quakers. Quaker presidents Hoover and Nixon “solemnly swore” at their respective inaugurations to uphold the constitution, though Herbert might have taken his oath more seriously than Dick.
Niccoli, who rallied a quartet of supportive clergy to her cause, did not point fingers. The ugly, lurid comments on the web were as usual anonymous.
Republican foe Amedore did not condemn such. Attesting that the vile web comments did not come from “the campaign,” an Amedore spokesperson released, “Senator Amedore is a staunch supporter of the Constitution and all the freedoms and liberties that are protected by it.” Efforts to reach either candidate directly have been in vain.