Time for New York politicians to stop ‘porking’ out
OK, class, let’s talk about pork. Pork, of course, is not kosher. Like many, I suspect one of the reasons it was listed in the biblically proscribed list was that if not properly handled, it caused diseases like trichinosis. Once that worm got into your system, you could die from it.
I tell you all of this since there is another kind of pork—that which exists in politics and abounds in New York, where the Legislature has given away more and more money each year. The party in power gets more of this pork (so-called projects and special member items) to give away than the minority party. It’s a big part of the Incumbent Protection Law (IPP) that I’ve been writing about for years. Even those from minority party districts are given a few pieces of bacon or ham to dispense. Clearly, everyone is in on the game. One of the ways that leaders keep control is by strategically giving pork to the more compliant legislators. As Bessie Smith once sang, “There are lots of ways to sell it, baby.”
This year is different because there really is no extra money to give away. The little boy who cried wolf has finally gotten his comeuppance. This time the wolf is at the door, ready to devour the body politic. We all hate the concept of pork, as some important legislators give away vast amounts of public dollars to ensure their own reelections. I always said that if Joe Bruno, former Mr. Big of the New York State Senate, gave one more thing to the city of Troy, the whole place would sink. Some politicians who give away pork are flat-out crooks. They channel pork to projects where they will personally benefit. There are various federal and state investigations looking into the way in which Pedro Espada, the Majority Leader of the Senate, has directed his member items to institutions in which he has a financial stake. This year, he became such an embarrassment to his fellow Democrats in the Senate that they are trying (surely futilely) to bar him from the party.
For his part, Governor Paterson just vetoed thousands of legislative member items because the State Senate would not pass a constitutionally required balanced budget. New Yorkers and their newspapers have wildly applauded his moves. Meanwhile, back in legislators’ individual districts, there is consternation because many of the member items like parks, swimming pools and ball fields that were promised to the constituents now won’t be funded. So, on a local level, some people are really angry, but if you polled the whole state and asked whether pork or member items should be cut from the budget, the answer would undoubtedly be a resounding yes. Why? Because most people don’t like the idea that some districts get goodies that others do not. In other words, if you are going to build a ball field in one district because the legislator asking for it has clout, it doesn’t seem fair to other districts with less powerful legislators. It really isn’t fair and that’s why David Paterson is getting huge backing from editorial boards and citizens alike. He may be late to the game, having delivered a fair amount of pork himself while in the State Senate, but he is doing the right thing.
The problem for the last several governors is that the whole member item thing has gotten completely out of control. They kept asking for more and more member items until the stink has gotten so bad that they had to put minimal controls on the process of handing them out. But, as we can see from the Espada case, where there is a will to pig out, there is a way to make pork.
During times like these when the larder really is empty, it seems like good and reasonable reforms are in order. This is the year of pork reform and legislators are just going to have to suck it up and learn how to behave. Of course, if they do pass a balanced budget, does anyone want to bet that David Paterson will allow them their self-serving pork, and that when they get it (and eat it), they and their constituents may be eaten from the inside by the trichinosis organism? Let’s get politically kosher.
Alan S. Chartock is president and CEO of WAMC/Northeast Public Radio and an executive publisher at The Legislative Gazette.
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