By Joseph Spector
Albany Bureau Chief
ALBANY - On the final day of the legislative session last month, the state Senate quietly approved $369 million for hometown projects -- including money for little leagues, local hospitals and museums.
WEB EXTRA: Here is a list of items approved by the state legislature.
The money was a re-appropriation of capital expenditures approved in the 2008-09 state budget, and some of it had been spent years ago. Still, the Republican-controlled Senate is being criticized for the spending at a time when public workers' salaries have been frozen and programs have been cut.
The allocation comes in an election year, when all 63 Senate seats are on the ballot. Republicans are clinging to a 33-29 seat majority.
"This is political pork," said Susan Lerner, executive director of Common Cause/NY. "There are real problems with giving these legislators large amounts of money, or even small amounts of money, which they are able to pass around at their sole discretion."
The money comes from an unspent pot of cash that the Legislature has tapped into for years to pay for pet projects in their districts.
The money is usually borrowed through the state Dormitory Authority or the Empire State Development Corp., the state's economic development arm.
A review by Gannett's Albany Bureau last year found that the state Legislature authorized spending $4.7 billion, mainly through borrowing, for capital projects over the past five years.
Scott Reif, a spokesman for Senate Republicans, said the latest round of spending is from unused appropriations dating back to the 2008-09 fiscal year. It was approved in two resolutions.
"These appropriations, which were previously advanced and previously approved, ensure critical economic development projects continue to move forward," Reif said. "The resolutions were approved with bi-partisan support."
While Senate Democrats supported the resolution, a spokesman for the Democratic conference knocked the spending, saying the money is going largely to Republican districts in an election year.
"For too long in Albany it has been about what is good for the politicians and not what is good for the people," said Mike Murphy, a spokesman for Senate Democrats. "The fact that the majority of this money is only going to Republican districts is outrageous and really shows the lengths the Republicans will go to hold on to power."
Morris Peters, a spokesman for the state Budget Division, said $31 million of the Senate's pot this year is going to projects that had not been previously funded. Assembly spokesman Michael Whyland said the Democratic-led Assembly didn't pass a similar resolution for capital projects it has funded.
Peters said the spending was consistent with Gov. Andrew Cuomo's position that no new money would be spent on legislative earmarks. Cuomo in April vetoed 129 so-called member items for lawmakers' local projects because he viewed them as new spending.
"Consistent with the governor's record on discretionary spending, there is no new funding, no new appropriation authority and no substitution of projects," Peters said in a statement.
The Senate's resolution included $100,000 to repair baseball fields for the Somers Little League in Westchester County. In Broome County, $500,000 went for upgrades to the Binghamton Mets' minor league baseball stadium.
In Monroe County, $8 million was designated for a crime lab.
It appears that some of the money was spent years ago, but was still included in the resolution. The resolution passed June 21, the last day of the legislative session.
The Senate passed a second resolution on June 21 that included money for other hometown projects, totaling about $3.6 million and mainly for crime prevention. It included some federal money, state officials said.
Thomas Weidemann, executive director of the Clemens Center, a performing arts center in Elmira, said he received a call recently from Sen. Thomas O'Mara's office that $1 million the group received in 2009 was going to be in the resolution. But he was told that it was not new money and was being included in the resolution for technical reason.
He said the money, secured by then-Sen. George Winner, R-Elmira, was crucial. It was used as part of an $18 million expansion.
"It was the critical piece. We found ourselves in a very precarious position," Weidemann said.
Some funding went to controversial groups. In one instance, $250,000 was allocated to the Foundation for the Advancement of Women Now, a charity started by music star Mary J. Blige, The New York Post reported last month that the charity has troubled finances. Although included in the resolution, the state money is not being sent to the group, Reif said.
Some officials were surprised that money, promised years ago, was finally approved. In 2008, with great fanfare, Senate Republicans and then-Majority Leader Joseph Bruno held a news conference in Rochester to announce $10 million in state aid for a new crime lab.
The money was never allocated - until $8 million appeared in the resolution last month.
"Any money that would come would go to the debt" for the $23 million lab, said Justin Feasel, a Monroe County spokesman.
The resolution included $100,000 for the Hudson River Museum in Yonkers. Michael Botwinick, the museum's director, said they learned about the funding a few weeks ago. It will go to repairs for the museum, which is in a house built in 1876. The museum is in the district of Sen. Andrea Stewart-Cousins, a Democrat.
"It's important to our community," Botwinick said of the museum. "The house very much has to do with teaching about sense of place and neighborhood."
Sen. Stephen Saland, R-Poughkeepsie, said the projects in his district help the region's economy. The projects included $1.25 million for the Walkway Over the Hudson, a popular tourist attraction, and $500,000 for the Poughkeepsie waterfront development. The money, he said, appears to have been allocated years ago.
"They are generally economic development items and items that are adding to the quality of life of not just my district, but to the mid-Hudson," Saland said.
Assemblyman Joel Miller, a Republican from Poughkeepsie, knocked the spending. He said it only goes to lawmakers in the majority in the Legislature and shouldn't be allocated by lawmakers themselves.
"It's unconscionable. When you have that kind of money to give out, everyone wants it," Miller said.
He continued: "So everyone in your district wants you to be the man of the month, the man of the week, the lady of the year. And then the newspapers print the articles that you were honored by this group and that group -- and the unknowing electorate thinks you actually did something."