About $200 million in pork-barrel spending in this year's state budget will be reviewed to ensure the 6,000 projects meet a "public purpose," State Attorney General Andrew M. Cuomo said Thursday, setting the stage for what could be a nasty confrontation with some legislators.
Cuomo, a Democrat, said he would tap a little-used law dating to the days of Boss Tweed to recoup any money dispensed through so-called member items that does not fit his interpretation of how state funds can be spent.
Cuomo, who took office Monday as the state's chief legal officer, described the way that pork-barrel projects in legislators' districts have received funding in the past decade as a "vivid, graphic symbol" of what's wrong in Albany.
In 1999, he noted, legislators and then-Gov. George E. Pataki abandoned the practice of spelling out such projects in the budget and, instead, allocated large lump sums subject to subsequent deals worked out behind closed doors.
But the new attorney general cautioned that he does not believe the vast majority of member items are inappropriate or even illegal.
"Many member items do good things," Cuomo said after a speech at the Nelson A. Rockefeller Institute of Government here.
Lawmakers have long defended such spending, saying they are in a better position than the governor or some official in the budget office to know which projects in their districts deserve funding.
They point to money for AIDS programs, low-income housing and senior citizen centers as prime examples.
But each year brings a new parade of questionable member items.
Critics point to money for a cheese museum and wrestling museum.
Each year, the list also includes funds for new scoreboards for youth baseball leagues or for groups, such as a sportsmen's club or arts organization, with ties to lawmakers. Such funds also flow steadily to religious groups.
From now on, Cuomo said, the question will be: Do the expenditures serve some sort of public good?
Some watchdogs have questioned funding for private companies.
Each year, for instance, American Axle & Manufacturing in Buffalo gets an allotment from Western New York lawmakers' member items.
The legislators have defended the spending because it provides work force training that helps keep jobs at the operations.
To legally obtain such funding, Cuomo said, private companies must demonstrate "a public benefit," such as creating or retaining jobs.
"A grant to a private company can achieve a public purpose, but there has to be a public purpose. There have to be jobs that would not have been created otherwise. They have to be new jobs; otherwise, you would just be subsidizing companies across the state," he said.
The state attorney general and comptroller already sign off on contracts and other expenditures of state money.
But Cuomo signaled that his office will take a more active role in ensuring not only the 6,000 projects funded this year but future projects meet the definition of a "public purpose."
If he finds spending that does not meet that standard, Cuomo said he would use a state provision that allows the attorney general to take legal action to force the recipient to repay the state.
He did not specifically define "public purpose" except to say ample case law and legal opinions cover spending for such purposes.
Mark Hansen, a spokesman for Senate Majority Leader Joseph L. Bruno, R-Brunswick, said the Senate plans to vote soon to require every budget item be specified.
"We certainly welcome the attorney general's input on this," Hansen said.
Eileen Larrabee, a spokeswoman for Assembly Speaker Sheldon Silver, D-Manhattan, said the Assembly insisted last fall that state agencies, in addition to the attorney general and comptroller, approve individual items in the budget.
"In that spirit, we welcome the attorney general's newly announced review and would certainly want to be made aware of any concerns he identifies," Larrabee said.
Of the $200 million in the current budget for such items, legislators received $170 million and Pataki got the rest.
The governor, however, can tap other pots to provide funding not specifically spelled out in the budget.
David Catalfamo, a spokesman for Pataki, said the former governor welcomes a "fair and honest review" of money approved this past year -- "provided it's not simply an excuse for a partisan witch-hunt or a means to settle old scores."
Pataki defeated Cuomo's father, then-Gov. Mario M. Cuomo, in the 1994 governor's race.