Gurney's Inn
November 15, 2006

Levy Wants To Know: Who's The Pork Pig?

The legislature retained his tax cut, but Steve Levy still isn't happy. This week the county executive, who proudly embraces the moniker "Miser of Holbrook," railed against the legislature's amendments to his proposed 2007 operating budget.

In a scathing press release he scolded lawmakers for adding to his proposal. In particular, he took issue with the manner in which they amended the budget — not providing adequate time for the review of additions and adding thousands in what he considers pork spending.

Lawmakers most often allocate the so-called pork, or member item money, to individual civic groups within their districts. Recipients are called "contract agencies." Legislators laud them for performing vital services to the community.

On Monday Levy acknowledged that some of the contract agencies are worthy of financial support, but many requests are simply "junk." Over the years, lawmakers have used tax dollars to buy prom dresses for a school, T-shirts for a PTA, law books for a private law school, and even to underwrite their holiday parties, he noted as examples. "This is not what the money was intended for," Levy asserted. It's supposed to help agencies like the Family Service League work with the homeless, he opined.

Each ensuing year, the member item funding lines swell, Levy said. Now, in fact, earmarks dwarf what a state assembly member is given to allocate. This go-round the legislature added 113 new contract agencies to the hundreds already receiving grants. "It's completely out of control," Levy spokesman Ed Dumas said. According to the CE a total of 300 new agencies were added since he took office.

Even more insulting to taxpayers, said Dumas, is the way in which the funding is included in the budget. It's all rolled in to one extensive omnibus amendment, and there's no way to know which lawmakers are boosting the discretionary portion of the budget.

"My biggest complaint is that so much is done in secrecy," Levy said. "They throw a lot of garbage in along with the good stuff, and it's voted on in one fell swoop." There's a "wink and a nod" culture among the legislators, as they agree to support each other's proposals. And even when one might oppose a particular earmark, Levy said, a lot of pressure is exerted to pass the overall plan even if some of the individual proposals are unworthy.

Levy wants that to end. He's submitted a bill calling for enhanced transparency in the process. If adopted by the legislature, it will require that lawmakers who propose extra spending attach their names to the proposals.

One last aspect of the budget seems to particularly chafe both branches. Levy has complained that it costs his office around $7000 to review a grant from a contract agency. In response, the legislature decided to give the task to its independent Budget Review Office, and process grant applications in house. "They're trying to take oversight of contract agencies from the executive office," Dumas explained. "I don't think, legally, they have the authority to do it." Levy's office, working with the county comptroller, recently discovered that scores of agencies that have refused to disclose financial information — like staff salaries — that are part of the grant application process. "They should not get paid," the county executive said.

Presiding Officer Bill Lindsay (D. Holbrook) countered the critique in a statement last week, "The legislative branch of this County government will not be a rubber-stamp for this County executive or any other. The legislature added less than five one hundredths of one percent to the County executive's proposed spending to provide vital services that absolutely must be maintained to protect public safety and public health." He added, "We believe we made the hard choices to protect the County executive's proposed general fund tax cut while striking an important balance with maintaining critical services that we as a County re-obliged to provide."

Lindsay reminded that Levy will get "a second bite of the apple" in the form of the power to veto amendments. In turn lawmakers will have the chance at their next general session to override the vetoes.

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