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To understand the state's pork projects, you have to meet SAM

ALBANY – State residents who pay close attention to how Albany operates should be familiar by now with the names of the elected officials who decide how their money gets spent.

But if they really want to understand, they should get to know SAM.

The State and Municipal Facilities Program, or SAM, as the pork barrel program goes by in Albany, found itself last week in the new state budget with a 25 percent increase in size.

When it comes to Albany pork, there is, as always, the usual millions scattered throughout the new budget on local earmarks to private companies and nonprofit kinds of agencies. There is the annual $4.6 million payment to the Buffalo Bills that was agreed to years ago to keep the team from moving, and dollars flow to everything from veterans’ assistance organizations to the Western New York Wool Cooperative.

But they pale in comparison to SAM.

In a budget derided for its secret negotiation process, at least the hundreds upon hundreds of individual pork barrel items get a specific line in the budget and a specific dollar amount.

Not SAM.

SAM is, on paper, controlled by the state Dormitory Authority, which means all the projects use borrowed money. But the real controllers of the SAM process is Gov. Andrew M. Cuomo and legislative leaders, who pick the future winners of SAM money that will flow through the Dormitory Authority.

Who’s getting what and how much this year? In their press releases touting a budget deal last week, no one bragged about SAM or its funding increase to $475 million. The details will all come out in the months ahead when Cuomo and lawmakers can hold timely news conferences and ribbon-cuttings – prior to the November elections – at winning SAM project sites.

“It’s just pork. There is nobody even pretending that there is statewide importance to any of these," said E.J. McMahon, research director of the Empire Center for Public Policy. "There is no process. No airing. There’s complete discretion."

SAM came to life just in time for money to go out the door in the 2014 elections, when Cuomo won his second term in office.

The fund has gotten $1.9 billion in appropriations since its 2013 creation, McMahon said. Originally, there were defined – though broad – limits on how money could be spent. Those restrictions have been relaxed with each budget year.

SAM got headlines in 2016 when it came to the rescue with $82 million to cover lapsed payments to workers on a Buffalo Billion project. Its name is almost certain to come up in June, when the Buffalo Billion corruption trial begins looking at, among other things, spending by SUNY subsidiaries with funding partly through SAM.

SAM money has gone to playgrounds, private hotel renovations, zoo exhibits, sidewalk work in Lackawanna, and for fixing up basketball and handball courts in Manhattan. The Ed Sullivan Theater in Manhattan for a $5 million spruce-up – courtesy of SAM – before Stephen Colbert began taping his late night show there. Fire districts, schools, counties all have gotten SAM money.

“They’re basically like teenagers with credit cards. They don’t think it’s real money,’’ McMahon said of politicians who OK and use the SAM funding.

McMahon described many of the SAM projects as “trivial.’’ He pointed to a proliferation of dog parks and a new police locker room in Oyster Bay, an affluent Long Island community.

“As if people in Oyster Bay can’t finance their own police locker room,’’ he said.

The Cuomo administration defended the SAM fund.

“The budget includes the flexibility to react to needs that emerge during the fiscal year, and every dollar of spending must meet the statutory and program requirements established within the appropriation language and be subject to a rigorous agency review process,’’ said Morris Peters, a spokesman for Cuomo’s budget office.

“The idea that we’d know exactly what the year will bring, with no contingencies, is simply unrealistic and a recipe for gridlock,’’ Peters added.

A new SAM funding pot this year lists one specific use: $40 million for Lake Ontario and St. Lawrence River flooding protection efforts. It does not list the projects, though.

McMahon recalled SAM being tapped to fund Rochester police car purchases.

“Someone in Albany might ask why are they paying for Rochester police cars," he said. "But people in Rochester are entitled to know why they are paying for skateboard parks in Albany. Let’s just call the whole thing off."

Local lawmakers celebrate their pork, without apology

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