Today’s news:

Lawmakers weigh use of campaign funds to help struggling boro nonprofits

Sen. Tony Avella has been leading the fight to return funding to nonprofits, which he says have been hit hard by the poor economy and a ban on member-item spending in Albany. Avella is sponsoring legislation that would create a lottery scratch-off game where proceeds would go to such groups.
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Some Queens state legislators said using campaign funds to donate money to struggling local nonprofits is not necessarily a good practice — even though campaign records indicate many engage in the activity.

“Technically, it’s probably not a good idea to use campaign funds to fund nonprofit groups,” said state Sen. Tony Avella (D-Bayside). “But on the other hand, we’re desperate.”

He said nonprofits have been hit hard financially since the downturn of the economy left less for people to donate and a 2010 ban on member-item spending in Albany gave state legislators few other ways to help out.

He said a number of nonprofits who do important work in their local communities are desperate for funds and are in danger of shuttering their doors.

“Something’s clearly got to be done,” he said. “You can’t fault anybody for trying to fill in the void as best we can.”

Sen. Toby Stavisky (D-Whitestone) also agreed that nonprofits have been hurt from the lack of discretionary money and she did not think donating to a nonprofit is an abuse of campaign funds.

But she said making the connection between donating to a nonprofit and furthering a political campaign in many cases is difficult.

“I don’t think that’s the purpose of campaign funds, quite frankly,” she said.

An official at the state Board of Elections said contributions received by candidates may be expended for any lawful purpose as long as it is not for personal use or the charitable organization is not connected to the public official through a family member.

Campaign records show that when state legislators do donate their campaign funds to nonprofits, it is usually in small amounts here and there.

In the last six months, Stavisky said she donated a total of about $350 to four groups for the purposes of placing two journal ads, buying refreshments and a dinner, although she said they were limited cases and her campaign account is used almost exclusively for campaign expenditures.

In 2012, Avella donated $1,000 to the Garibaldi-Meucci Museum in Staten Island, which he said was a special case. The money came out of a $3,000 campaign donation made by Richard Lipsky to Avella, which the senator said he pledged to donate to a charity group after the lobbyist was indicted.

Both Avella and Stavisky said they would support a return of discretionary spending to help alleviate the financial burdens on nonprofits, but only if they are restored in a way that protects the taxpayers from abuse that was rampant before the ban.

“I think that we have to be very scrupulous as to who receives funding because there have been abuses,” Stavisky said. “You want to make sure the money is going to the organization and not into someone’s pocket.”

Reach reporter Karen Frantz by e-mail at kfrantz@cnglocal.com or by phone at 718-260-4538.

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