Nobody likes the idea of paying taxes. But for the most part, we accept the yearly travail that surrounds the tax deadline of April 15 because taxes are the price we pay for the privilege of living in this great land of ours. The problem is, we don't always know what our tax dollars are paying for. "I wouldn't mind paying if it were something sensible," Grandpa Vanderhof tells an IRS man in the Kaufman and Hart play, "You Can't Take It With You".
When the play premiered on Broadway in 1938, life was a great deal simpler. Regulation of interstate commerce and armed forces to protect us from enemies who sought to do us harm on our own shores, two of the things Grandpa couldn't see paying for, have proved their necessity in today's world. Taxes do, indeed, pay for "something sensible." Almost every aspect of our daily lives-the protection police and firefighters provide, trash pickup, schools, parks, roads and highways, national defense-costs money, and taxation at the local, state and federal level is the way we pick up the tab. For the most part, it's a fair exchange.
Like every other human institution, however, the taxation system has room for error. The political "pork barrel" (an informal term for governmental appropriations for political patronage, such as local improvements that please a specific legislator's constituents) is rolled out regularly at all levels of government.
Many elected officials have projects or institutions dear to their and their constituents' hearts, and most of these are
worthy of the monies they receive-nonprofits, charitable organizations, cultural groups that serve a public purpose. At the federal level, members of both houses of the legislature must disclose each such project in reports that accompany legislation. And to their credit, some Congressmembers are debating whether the process of allocating funds for members' particular favorite projects or organizations is as open as it should be. This is commendable and should be encouraged.
In New York state, however, these allocations, known as "member items" or "economic development funds", are not listed in the state budget. They appear as lump sums, and are divided among the governor, state senate majority leader and Assembly speaker, each of whom makes individual determinations as to where, to whom and how this money-$479 million over the last three years-will go.
From what we have seen, our state legislators use their member items fairly. They never have as much to allocate as they would like, but the evidence shows that they use their discretionary funds honorably to support as many deserving projects that serve the public good as they can.
Sadly, this is not universally true, A group known as Christian Airmen, one objective of which is to "evangelize the aviation community", received $300,000 for hangars at the upstate airport it runs. That seems to us more than a little like violating the Constitutional principle of separation of church and state. Some $50,000 of taxpayer monies will repair the
roof of one sportsman's club near Albany. Another hunting club, this one on Long Island, was slated to receive $200,000. And while the Long Island hunting club claims to maintain strong community ties through programs with the state, both are private, members-only organizations. We, the taxpayers who are ponying up the $250,000 for both clubs, couldn't get in the door of either one.
We readily grant that the organizations serve their members' purposes, but public monies should not be used for private entities such as these. There's no way Grandpa Vanderhof or anyone else would categorize taxpayers' footing the bill for these items as "something sensible".
The New York state budget process is also unusually secretive. A list of legislators' member item expenditures provided only information as to what amounts the state allocated. The executive director of a conservative watchdog group, citing the fact that the member item grants are based on no known criteria, there is no application process, groups have no performance guidelines and there is no way of knowing if the money allocated was spent on its ostensible purpose, "bad government". We agree.
While most of the member items listed were for deserving causes, there is too much room for error. These loopholes should be closed. The taxpayers of New York state deserve to know that they are paying for projects, organizations and institutions that qualify for public funds, not for the staves of a private pork barrel.