By Josefa Velasquez and Claudia Irizarry Aponte, THE CITY
When voters in Williamsburg and Greenpoint cast their primary ballots in June, they did more than tap a new representative for an Assembly district that’s been held by Joe Lentol since the 1970s.
Emily Gallagher’s stunning defeat over one of the most influential members in the state Assembly potentially puts on the chopping block millions of dollars local nonprofit organizations and community programs receive.
That’s because the programs were funded via the state budget, under a spoils system that rewards senior members of the Legislature.
It’s been a decade since then-Gov. David Paterson and leaders of the state Assembly and Senate announced an end to so-called member items, taxpayer-funded allotments that individual state lawmakers used to back programs and projects in their districts.
But the practice has persisted via different pots of money — putting potentially $10 million on the line in the Brooklyn Assembly district, where leadership will change hands for the first time in 48 years come Jan. 1. Gallagher is running unopposed in the general election.
Those earmarked taxpayer dollars, dubbed “pork” by critics, sustain improvements to schools and other community facilities in members’ districts. Other pots of money pay for social service and recreation programs.
‘A Broken System’
Gov. Andrew Cuomo’s aggressive budget management in response to COVID-induced cutbacks in state revenue has restrained but not ended the practice.
Incumbents in the majority party, particularly those with seniority and leadership positions, have access to millions of dollars in grants and funds scattered throughout the state budget, making it difficult for newcomers to compete with their clout. Ultimately, the Assembly speaker, Senate majority leader and governor decide how to divide the pie.
Gallagher vowed to “work tooth and nail to secure every dollar” possible for the North Brooklyn district, she told THE CITY in a statement. But she acknowledged that the earmarking of funds is emblematic of a power structure that hinders challengers.
“It’s indicative of a broken system if the only way to maintain resources for a community is to elect the same incumbent, decade after decade,” she said. “No New Yorker should be punished or rewarded based on how long your representative stays in office.”
Emily Mijatovic, a Lentol spokesperson, said in a statement that the longtime Assembly member “is confident his successor will be able to negotiate and secure funding for projects in the 50th Assembly District.”
Generations of Lentols
Lentol’s influence was bolstered not only by his longevity in the seat — previously held by his father and grandfather — but also his chairmanship of the Assembly’s powerful codes committee, which holds sway over New York’s criminal law.
In the days when member items flowed more openly, Lentol could command more member item dollars than even then-Speaker Sheldon Silver, reaping $11.2 million for his district in 2007. The money went to community groups as well as organizations like the Legal Aid Society and the Osborne Association, which assists people who have been in the criminal justice system.
In 2010, Paterson and legislators ended the controversial member item practice, after multiple state lawmakers directed state funds to nonprofits as kickback schemes to enrich themselves and their families, ultimately leading to their imprisonment.
Among them is the State and Municipal Facilities (SAM) program, created in 2013 to fund construction projects and other capital investments, from playgrounds and new ambulances, to turf fields to security cameras at NYCHA buildings to renovations at the Brooklyn Public Library.
The sorts of programs funded provide little accountability for the public, said Ken Girardin of the Empire Center, a fiscally conservative think tank.
“It is one of the most irresponsible things New York state lawmakers do. The process is opaque, and projects get funded based on the political benefit for the sponsor, not the public need,” Girardin told THE CITY.
According to one former Lentol campaign worker who shared usually obscure member-item details, the longtime lawmaker was awarded roughly $14 million this year. Much of that, she said, could be in jeopardy with the change in representation.
“Our state’s political system is set-up so that seniority matters. This might not be fair, but if we lose Joe as a representative, our community will potentially lose close to 14 million dollars,” Francoise Olivas, a former volunteer coordinator for Lentol’s reelection campaign, told THE CITY in an email.
Among the dollars potentially on the line: a $100,000 environmental grant for North Brooklyn Neighbors, a non-profit environmental justice group that serves the district; $30,000 for the NYU Veterans Entrepreneur Training Program; and $150,000 to the Greenpoint Outreach Domestic and Family Intervention Program, an addiction services provider.
Smaller Scores for Newcomers
Gallagher isn’t alone in bracing to fill the funding gap that is likely to come when she heads to Albany. Newcomers who have unseated longtime incumbents in the state Senate have faced similar challenges, even as control of the body shifted to their Democratic party.
Take State Sen. Alessandra Biaggi (D-The Bronx), who has received $1.34 million in SAM budget items in the last two years after unseating power-player Jeff Klein, according to information provided to THE CITY by the Senate.
That’s a fraction of the nearly $8 million Klein was awarded in 2017 and 2018 through the SAM program as co-leader of a faction of Democrats that aided Republican control of the Senate.
In Brooklyn, Democratic State Sen. Andrew Gounardes secured $5.6 million in SAM grants in the last two years after unseating Marty Golden, a Republican. He was part of a wave of Democrats whose election earned his party a Senate majority after years of Republican rule.
Among the additional funding awards Gounardes received, according to his office, was $100,000 for the Gerritsen Beach Volunteer Fire Department for two emergency responder vehicles, and $750,000 to renovate the main building of the Guild for Exceptional Children, a district nonprofit.
But the $5.6 million in SAM grants fell far short of the $10.2 million Golden had obtained during his last two years in office, according to the Senate.
Gounardes, who is running in a contentious race to keep the seat he flipped in 2018, said, “State aid shouldn’t be a political maneuver or way to stay in power.”
“I’ve fought tirelessly to secure much-needed aid for southern Brooklyn, and am very proud that we’ve been able to bring massive parks and education funding in our district through a variety of channels,” he said in an email. “When I tell my constituents that we secured state funds for projects, it’s not a political statement or wishful thinking as it was under past GOP control, but a needed investment in the future of our communities.”
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