Tucked quietly into Gov. Andrew Cuomo's budget proposal for next fiscal year are steps meant to free up money that New Yorkers have donated through their income tax returns to aid the fight against cancer, but which has yet to reach the battlefield.
Cuomo's budget would simplify the administration of donations for prostate cancer research and education. It also would restructure the state Health Research Science Board, which recommends how to distribute similar funding for breast cancer.
New Yorkers can support these and five other causes through checkoff boxes on their tax forms. A Democrat and Chronicle story last October detailed how some of that money has piled up in state accounts, which spurred a critical report from the state Comptroller's Office in January.
Advocates reacted warily to Cuomo's proposals, which came without any announcement or fanfare. Darryl Mitteldorf, chairman of the New York State Prostate Cancer Coalition, said the state's handling of the prostate cancer money to date has been "cause for cynicism," and he hopes the state will consult his group on how best to use the money.
"We hope that this money will be distributed with good conscience, with regard for research that will advance the hunt for a true cure for prostate cancer," he said.
Holly Anderson, executive director of the Breast Cancer Coalition of Rochester, said her group fought to add six regional seats for breast cancer survivors that would be eliminated from the Health Research Science Board under Cuomo's budget.
It's questionable how effective the regional seats were — Anderson said the western New York slot has long sat vacant.
"The tax checkoff programs have been a frustration for the breast cancer advocate community," she said.
The prostate cancer fund, created in 2004, had collected $2.9 million but had yet to release a dime as of last year.
The law that created the fund required donations to be funneled through an outside nonprofit called the New York Coalition to Cure Prostate Cancer — not be confused with Mitteldorf's similarly named, but unrelated, group. The nonprofit was supposed to collect matching funds from a foundation in California and then distribute grants.
Instead, the group never got off the ground, the IRS revoked its nonprofit status in 2011 and the money went nowhere.
Cuomo's budget would strike the nonprofit from the law and leave it to the state health commissioner to release prostate cancer money in grants. The budget also would allow donations to go to support groups and would add a prostate or testicular cancer survivor to an advisory council on cancer initiatives.
The goal is to "actually expend the money this year appropriately, as New Yorkers wish when they check off that box," state Health Commissioner Dr. Nirav Shah told lawmakers in a budget hearing this month.
As for the breast cancer board, three voting and three non-voting regional seats for survivors would be replaced by four voting seats, regardless of location, for survivors or grassroots advocates.
The board also would lose a prostate cancer survivor. The recommendations are meant to help the board be more efficient and focus on its main objective: reviewing and recommending breast cancer research grant awards, said Morris Peters, a state budget spokesman.
Anderson said that board often has canceled meetings because it lacked a quorum.
"Breast cancer research money, and research in general, is being cut to smithereens," she said. "So what good are these funds sitting in a bank account?"