October 23, 2008 - 5:00 AM
My story in today's paper on how the state Legislature spends your tax dollars has its roots in a piece I did nearly three years ago. I was looking into whether Steve Casey ran Byron Brown's mayoral campaign on state time. Brown was a senator at the time and Casey worked on his staff. I tried to get payroll records, but the Legislature has exempted itself from providing them under the state freedom of Information Law.
Instead of giving me the records I requested, the Legislature sent me copies of something called "Expenditure Reports." They're published every six months and detail how each legislator, and all the assorted committees, spend our money.
I looked at the reports and, while realizing they did nothing to help me with the Casey story, thought they would make for a good story down the road. Earlier this year I submitted another FOI request to the Legislature, asking for the records in an electronic format. I wanted them in spreadsheet format so I could do assorted calculations, rankings, etc.
Senate Secretary Steven Boggess claimed the records didn't exist in electronic format, even though it was obvious that the Expenditure Reports were little more than printouts of spreadsheets. I went back and forth with his office, to no avail. At the same time, however, the Senate turned over the data that was not in an electronic format to the Empire Center For Policy -- in an electronic format.
The Assembly, meanwhile, did send me an electronic version, but it was in such a tortured format that the data was next-to-impossible to use. It did the same thing to the Empire Center For Policy, the folks who operate SeeThroughNY, which had to hire a computer programmer to spend 60 hours making sense of the jumbled data.
My original intention had been to track the spending of all 212 legislators. But between the delays caused by the intransigence of the Legislature, other stories I was working on and the time consumed by writing daily posts to feed the blog monster, I realized a month ago that time was running out. If I was going to write something in time for the general election, I had to get cracking. That meant narrowing my scope to the 19 members of our local delegation and creating my own spreadsheets by inputting the necessary data.
Glamorous work, it wasn't. But I learned as I inputted. Among other things, how the Legislature makes readers work really hard to make sense of the reports. There are no summary tables that lay out the big picture, for example. Something, say, that listed total spending by each legislator. Nope. Readers have to do the math on their own. Lots of it.
Want to know how much Senate and Assembly members earn between their base salary and stipends? There's no total. You have to add 'em up. Want to know how much they spend on their staff? Add all the individual salaries up, which, in the case of folks like Dale Volker, involves a lot of people. And the figures reflect salaries only, not the cost of benefits, which are considerable.
Want to know the sum of lines and lines of travel and per diem expenses? Add 'em up. Want to know how much members spent on newsletters, one of the ways legislators spend tax dollars to promote themselves through the mail? The Senate book told you. Sometimes. The Assembly report did not tell you. Ever.
Apparently, the software that produced the Assembly reports had a flaw (he said with tongue in cheek). It didn't produce any commas in the spending figures. An example: the spending for, say, the Program and Counsel Staff for the latest reporting period read 2858477.46. Or $2,858,477.46 if you use commas.
For all my beefing, I've really got no complaint. It's my job to wade though this kind of stuff. But you, dear reader, dear taxpayer, you've got every right to be peeved. Because you have no way of getting at the Expenditure Reports unless (1) you know they exist and (2) you know how to use the FOI Law to wrest them loose from the bureaucrats in Albany.
You'd think, in this day and age, the records would be posted online. You'd be wrong. No, the Web sites maintained by the Senate and Assembly consist largely of material aimed at boosting the image of legislators. Press releases. Flattering bios. All done at taxpayer expense, of course.
In the coming days I'll delve into more details I found in the reports. There's lots to be outraged about.