Member items, also known as discretionary spending or earmarks, are allotments of money given out by state, federal, and local governments for projects or services in legislative districts and communities. These funds are usually given out through the elected officials that represent these areas, and can be used in a variety of ways. In the human services arena, member items play an important role in providing core operating support and programmatic funding for community-based organizations. With tightening budgets and limited help from the formal budget, many nonprofits turn to elected officials and member items to help create, expand, and maintain vital services in their communities. In New York City, for example, these funds have been used to support a variety of programs, including food pantries, legal clinics for the homeless, services to home bound seniors, programs for at-risk youth, and college preparation for City students.
Local legislators and the agencies they partner with are attuned to the specific needs of their districts and through member items can fund programs that both address important unmet needs and fill gaps left by other state and local funding. As such, member items can address unique and complex neighborhood issues that are not addressed through a government agency or program. They also provide a low-cost and efficient means of piloting innovative programs for future full-scale support. Without these member items many nonprofit organizations will be left to operate only on more rigid forms of funding and would lose the flexibility to develop innovative and vital new programs for their communities.
In New York City, member items are given out by individual City Council members as well as the City Council as a whole, through the City Council Speaker. These funds are used for expense projects, such as non-profits and social services, as well as capital projects like the building or restoration of parks, schools, and other infrastructure projects. To receive discretionary funds from the NYC Council an organization must go through an extensive pre-qualification process (For more info on the application process, click here). Each Council Member is typically given between $2 and $9 million, from which they make final decisions about which projects to fund.
At the state level, member items have been nonexistent since 2010 when then-Governor David Patterson removed them from the state budget, a policy that has been continued by the Cuomo administration. However, new legislation has been proposed by State Senator Jose Serrano and Assembly Member Sandy Galef that would put stringent standards on the distribution and use of member items, which may make their reinstatement more palatable to both the Governor and the public. Bill A00641/S00920 would disallow the use of member items if there is a conflict of interest, require evaluations by state agencies of member item spending, require line-item budgets from recipients, and ensure that all legislators are given the same amount of money to spend on member items.
Reforms such as these may help to change the image of member items from “pork” to the support they provide for so many non-profits and communities around the State. While member items can be, and have been, used for unlawful or unethical purposes, these instances do not negate the overwhelmingly positive impacts that they have on a community. By striving to reform and improve the discretionary process on all levels of government, we can increase the transparency and accountability of the system while still maintaining the vital funding for community services and projects.
What can you do to help? Reach out to your State and Local representatives and let them know you support Member Items and the important role they play in communities!
Contributed by Cory Mills-Dick, HSC Intern