Addabbo pushes for member items alternative

By Sarina Trangle

While most legislators are busy haggling over pre-kindergarten funding and campaign finance reform in the state budget, state Sen. Joseph Addabbo Jr. (D-Howard Beach) has renewed his bid to secure money for Queens nonprofits.

Addabbo said he met with Gov. Andrew Cuomo earlier this month and urged him to institute an alternative framework for distributing state funds to community organizations, schools, senior centers and neighborhood projects after the executive curtailed lawmakers’ access to member items in 2010 amid a spate of scandals involving the so-called member items.

The state budget once included a lump sum for generic aid to schools, corporations, municipalities or nonprofits, which legislators would direct to local initiatives.

“I said, ‘Governor, I don’t mind that you took it away from me … but you never replaced it and now I have senior centers, veterans posts, after-school programs suffering,” Addabbo said, before listing organizations that he once directed funding to that have since closed due to a lack of money, including the Queens Multi-Service Center in Glendale, which provided case management for seniors, and the Forest Park Senior Center.

The senator has reintroduced a bill he drafted last year that would maintain the money once funneled through member items, but continue barring legislators from controlling it by having the state vet organizations and award financing through grant applications.

No senators have signed onto the bill and it does not have a sponsor in the state Assembly.

But Addabbo said he primarily submitted the measure to propose a framework for the governor, who he said already has the authority to institute a mechanism for getting state funding to local groups.

Although Cuomo’s office did not respond to requests for comment, Addabbo described his reaction as somewhat open.

“It wasn’t dead in the water,” Addabbo said.

Cuomo stopped allocating money for member items as several abuses emerged.

The city Department of Investigation determined that as former Brooklyn Assemblyman Vito Lopez directed money to the Ridgewood Bushwick Senior Citizens Council, the nonprofit falsified documents, double-billed the state and inflated the salary of its executive director, who was Lopez’s girlfriend, according to the good government group Citizens Union.

Then Jamaica’s former Sen. Shirley Huntley was sentenced to a year and a day behind bars after she admitted in federal court to stealing thousands in member items from one of her sham nonprofits.

The first few years without new discretionary funding were not so bad, according to Addabbo.

He said legislators had access to previously approved but unused member items money. But that financing has since dried up, leaving organizations throughout the state struggling.

Citizens Union, a nonpartisan organization dedicated to improving elections and governance, has historically raised several concerns about member items, but believes legislators should have some role in the allocation process, according to Rachael Fauss, policy and research manager for Citizens Union.

“Funding for AIDS issues in the 1980s was a very political issue and the legislators were able to direct needed funding to those groups,” she said. “But at the same time, there needs to be more control over it.”

Citizens Union helped state Sen. Jose Serrano (D-Manhattan) and Assemblywoman Sandy Galef (D-Westchester County) draft legislation that would require member items to be itemized in the budget and the legislators behind such allocations to sign related conflict of interests forms.

Recipients of $50,000 or more in state money would have to send documents to the state attorney general detailing how the money was spent.

Reach reporter Sarina Trangle at 718-260-4546 or by e-mail at strangle@cnglocal.com.