NYDN: Cuomo Budget Includes $3 Billion Discretionary Fund, No Member Items

Billions In Discretionary Funds Set Aside By Gov. Andrew Cuomo Enable Him To Exercise Great Power: Insiders

Cuomo allocated $3 billion for new programs and flexible spending. While he has control over the money, he says it will be used for 'tranformational projects,' according to insiders.

By Ken Lovett New York Daily News February 4, 2013

ALBANY -Gov. Cuomo’s budget proposal is free of legislative pork, but keeps billions of dollars in discretionary spending under his thumb, leading miffed legislators to accuse him of a big-ticket power grab.

The budget Cuomo put forward on Jan. 22 features more than $3 billion in new programs and discretionary spending that would be controlled solely by the governor, a Senate review of his spending plan found.

This has caused much grousing within the Legislature, and some members have gone as far as saying that a governor with a reputation for wanting to control everything is trying to render legislators powerless.

“If the governor’s given this authority, why is there even a need for a Legislature?” a legislative official complained.

“It’s an awful lot of money to be allocated at the sole discretion of one person,” the official added, arguing that changes to Cuomo’s proposed spending formula must be made. “The Legislature wants input into how public money is spent.”

Insiders note the push for Cuomo-controlled spending comes as the governor has once again sought to exclude from the budget new member-item funding - the dollars lawmakers for decades doled out to various nonprofits in their districts, helping to fund important programs but also leading to many questionable expenditures aimed at shoring up political support.

Team Cuomo argues the funding the governor seeks is hardly same old-same old.

“Unlike member items, no one ever went to jail for the way they spent money from these programs,” a Cuomo official said.

Sources in the Cuomo administration say the funds he wants to control will be used, in the words of the Cuomo official, to cover “transformational projects, not a new roof on a social club.”

And much of it, they say, will be subject to a competitive bidding process that will seek input from lawmakers.

The Senate review of the budget found the governor is asking for power over more than $452 million in operating funds and $2.66 billion in capital funding.

The bulk of it, about $1.2 billion, would be earmarked for economic development discretionary spending, including some $720 million in new capital funding for “transformative” projects over the next few years.

Cuomo is also calling for additional funds to be devoted to both new and existing programs, such as $150 million for regional economic development councils; $165 million in competitive grants for CUNY and SUNY for projects designed to help the economy; and $71 million in new incentives that will be awarded competitively to school districts.

In the past, the Legislature has raised objections to similar spending, even while ultimately approving it. Senate GOP spokesman Scott Reif said this year’s proposed discretionary spending “is one of a number of issues to be discussed as part of the overall budget discussions.”

Assembly spokesman Michael Whyland said bluntly: “We will negotiate the budget with the governor, not in the press.”

The Cuomo official said much of the $3 billion in discretionary funding was originally added to the budget request before the state was certain it would receive billions of federal dollars for Hurricane Sandy relief. But with the federal money now secure, the official added: “We probably have too much built into the budget.”

The governor, the source said, may seek to lower the discretionary spending price tag.

He has 21 days from the date of his proposal to make changes. March 31 is the deadline for passage of a new budget.