Gov. Andrew Cuomo took his $1 billion economic development plan on the road Tuesday and said it’s time New Yorkers stop talking about the good old days of booming economies if they want to create a better future for their children.
“Of late, my friends, the truth is there’s been too much talk of the old days and, ‘When we had this factory and when we did steel and when we did this.’ We have to talk more of the future rather than in the past,” Cuomo said in Buffalo. “We have to talk more about what we are going to be.”
Polls have shown New Yorkers and particularly more conservative upstate residents have long been pessimistic about their economy and jobs as well as their elected officials’ ability to improve either after decades of promises and new economic development programs.
Cuomo’s twist would pool $1 billion in tax breaks and aid for construction and infrastructure as prizes for the best proposals in 10 regions around the state that would compete for the resources.
The latest plan to revive the long moribund upstate economy and to keep more prosperous pockets in the Hudson Valley, New York City and Long Island humming continues to rely on government tax breaks. They have been used for decades to attract employers and retain jobs at existing companies that threaten to leave.
In the past, the process has been hit by scandals, with politically connected business operators getting breaks for little if any job growth. In 2004, a politically connected developer bought the rights to build along 1,000 miles of shoreline along the old Erie Canal for $30,000. That deal was ultimately blocked.
“In politics, talk is cheap,” said Professor James E. Campbell, chairman of the political science department at the state University at Buffalo. “I think there is a tendency of a lot of people …. to see a lot of what government has done in the past as a series of gimmicks or special deals, and I think people really want to get away from that and have a firm, established, equitable policy that is not a special deal for this company or that company.”
Lowering some of the nation’s highest taxes and eliminating some of the regulations faced by businesses could create a better business climate to attract far more employers, he said.
The Cuomo administration notes the breaks are critical. New York must still compete with other states and countries offering tax breaks for employers who shop around to strike the best deal, often easing their taxes for years or decades at the expense of other taxpayers.
Cuomo announced the members of his first two regional councils — one for Western New York and another for Central New York — on Tuesday. They will act as advisory boards of business, education and government leaders to recommend tax breaks, capital projects and other benefits to support regional proposals to create and retain jobs. Final decisions on projects and funding will remain with state officials, despite Cuomo’s repeated statements that his program would end the “top-down” approach of previous administrations.
As with some of Cuomo’s previous appointments, such as picking a Manhattan banker as chairman of the state Thruway Authority, Cuomo appointed a few of his campaign contributors to the high-profile, unpaid positions. They include the western New York co-chairman, Howard Zemsky, who contributed $15,000 to Cuomo’s campaigns; and board member John Koelmel, who contributed $2,000 to Cuomo’s governor campaign last year. Zemsky is the managing for the Larkin Development Group, a marketing and manufacturing company; and Koelmel is CEO and president of First Niagara Financial Group, a bank and financial services company.
Cuomo directed the regional board members to ignore political boundaries to create regional approaches while creating a sense of optimism.
Massachusetts in recent decades spent considerable effort in its economic revival to shed its “Taxachusetts” image, and this year Maine added a message to its welcoming sign on highways: “Open for Business.”
But Campbell says New Yorkers are stung by the failed jobs programs of the past, including Senate candidate Hillary Clinton’s promise in 2000 to produce 200,000 jobs upstate, as the region sunk deeper in stagnation. He said that’s why many New Yorkers keep looking to the past that was filled with good-paying manufacturing jobs, to provide comfort in the face of skepticism of the future.
Buffalo, for example, once one of the nation’s most important cities, is in the process of razing 5,000 vacant houses. That’s about half of the city’s empty structures, the second highest amount of empty houses in the nation. The city lost half of its population from 1950 to 2000 as employers left.
Today, the Buffalo-Niagara Falls region’s unemployment rate is 7.7 percent, down from 8.1 percent a year ago. The statewide unemployment rate is 8 percent, down from 8.4 percent a year ago.
“People in western New York have had their hopes raised a number of times in the past, and nothing has come through,” Campbell said.
Copyright 2011 The Associated Press.