The Importance of Member Items

With the release of details about who is responsible for which member items, there is likely to be a great deal of discussion of the member items per se. But the nature of what they fund is not their true significance.

While the amounts of money involved are not small, neither are they large in the context of overall state and local government spending in New York. And while most of the services funded with these grants are not useless, few are essential, or incapable of being funded locally if thought to be worth the money. Some parts of the state may be treated unfairly in the distribution of these grants, but the effect of this is not likely to be siginificant either in terms of the taxes they have to pay or the services most of them receive. The real importance of member items (and, at the federal level, earmarks) is that this sideshow is virually the sole focus of most of our elected representatives. And, it is the sole focus of elections for state legislature and Congress.

In exchange for their share of these little grants, New York's state legislators and federal representatives and congresspeople are expected to meekly go along with whatever important decisions Pataki, Bruno, Silver, Bush, Peolsi, etc. make, without question and without even a thought of voting differently based on either ideology or community interest. In exchange for the ability to cut a few little deals, they sell us out on the big one's year after. So a senior club got a trip to Atlantic City? In exchange, that legislator voted in favor of a budget that provided NYC children with an unfailry low share of state school aid. And yet they remain if office, because they are permitted to portray themselves as our benefactors by throwing us a few nickels, as if the money has come from their own pockets. Actually it came from our own pockets.

A few exampls to demonstrate this. When my assemblymember came to my neighborhood in 2003 for a public meeting on a bogus issue, I stood up and asked him whether, if the next budget once again provided NYC with an unfairly low share of state school aid, he would vote no. He basically beat and around the bush and more or less said the answer was "no." Why not? Probably because he would lose his member items. He was neutered. That was about the last straw, so I ran against him as a minor party protest candidate.

While talking to people as such, I came across a couple of people who were politically savvy. One asked, if I were elected, which conference I would sit with. I responded that I would be going up there to speak out against existing priorities and procedures, would probably vote "no" much of the time, would probably be the only one doing so, and thus I might not even be permitted to sit in the building. He said he was worried that might hurt the neighborhood on grants. Grants which, to the neighborhood, are insignificant relative to the total scope of government activity.

Another said that while she was disappointed with the legislature overall, the incumbent had been very generous to her child's chool, with special grants. I asked her if she thought that made up for the funding formula as a whole, and even if it did, if she would want her child's Park Slope school to be adequately funded at the expense of a school down in Parkville. She said no, but that's the best that could be done.

People, $200 million in total grants to local governments and local organizations is not significant when compared with the public finances of the entire state. Nor is the $300 million in federal earmarks NY State received last time I checked, one of the lowest per capita levels in the country.

If New York City's share of these grants rose somewhat would it make a difference in our lives? Do federal earmarks make a difference compared with the Medicaid matching share, the lack of a comprehensive federal health care finance system, the future of Social Security, the cost of the war, the transportation finance formula, and the distribution of the tax burden (including the AMT, and debts that shift today's tax burden forward)? Do state member items make a difference compared with the public school funding formula, the level of Medicaid spending and the way it is financed, transportation funding and priorities, pensions and debts? NO!

Then why are earmarks and member items all your representative talks about, thinks about, sends you taxpayer funded mail about? And then you wonder why the big decisions are so terrible.