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Spitzer promises aid boost to upstate 'Long-standing' issues target of new governor

Distressed upstate cities, towns and school districts will receive additional "significant" aid increases in Gov. Eliot Spitzer's first state budget in an effort to help turn around the moribund upstate economy.

"We are making a commitment at the start of the new administration to do something about a long-standing problem that affects millions of New Yorkers," Spitzer said in a statement Tuesday. "The turnaround we seek won't be easy and won't occur immediately, but we will keep at it until the job is done."

Spitzer, who will give his first State of the State message today to a joint session of the Legislature, said his administration also will release a report at the beginning of each year on the condition of the upstate region.

Other than a pledge to sharply increase aid for struggling municipalities and school districts upstate, the new governor did not break any new ground Tuesday from his 2006 campaign promises.

However, administration advisers said Spitzer's decision to use his first policy position paper, released on his second day in office, was meant as a signal of his commitment to focus on a region he once likened to Appalachia.

In his speech today, Spitzer will call on legislators to join him in what he said is his first priority: reforming the operation of government to make it a "catalyst for change instead of an impediment," according to excerpts of his speech provided by Spitzer's office Tuesday.

"Our second objective is to revitalize our economy and lead New York into a new era of opportunity and prosperity," he will say today.

Spitzer's upstate agenda focuses on plans that include a reduction in property taxes by $6 billion over three years that especially targets middle-class taxpayers. He also wants to change expensive workers' compensation rules that drive up costs for employers while providing some of the lowest injured worker benefits in the nation.

Spitzer today will call the current model a "system that does not work for anyone."

The governor also wants to reform laws that drive up the costs of construction projects by local governments, add new energy capacity in the state to help drive down energy costs and "prioritize" regional infrastructure projects, such as the long-stalled Peace Bridge expansion.

Spitzer also repeated his vow to appoint an upstate economic development czar to be based in Buffalo. A national search has been under way to find someone who will have to deal not only with upstate's economic challenges but also the varying competing interests across the region's communities.
Other plans geared to benefit upstate include:

* A universal, broad-band Internet system to ensure low-cost access to the Internet is available to residents in upstate urban and rural areas.
* An increased push to get brownfields, which are often polluted and abandoned old industrial sites, put back into use. Buffalo alone has thousands of such sites.
* Creation of a Pride of New York Wholesalers Market in New York City that will enable upstate farmers to more easily market their goods to consumers there.
* A new tourism push focusing on promoting upstate as, in part, an outdoors destination for travelers.
The governor's speech today will provide a road map of where he wants to go during his first year in office. Details, on such things as by how much he wants to increase aid to upstate cities and schools, will come when he releases his 2007 budget in less than four weeks.

"That's a good thing," Andrew Rudnick, president of the Buffalo Niagara Partnership, said of Spitzer's putting out his list of upstate priorities on the second day in office. "And the real key is what he says in the budget message."
Government reform groups Tuesday urged the new governor to use his first address to lawmakers to promote an ambitious agenda to change how Albany conducts business. Spitzer made reforming the State Capitol -- addressing such things as lobbying, campaign finance, redistricting and the budget process -- a central theme of his inaugural address Monday.

Spitzer on Monday signed executive orders banning gifts to state employees, tightening loopholes involving revolving door provisions for state officials who leave their government jobs and an anti-nepotism rule for state contracts and hiring decisions.

Blair Horner, a lobbyist with the New York Public Interest Research Group who was a member of Spitzer's transition team, called the moves by Spitzer "significant first steps." But, he added, "much more needs to be done."
The reform groups, which included Common Cause and the League of Women Voters, called on Spitzer and legislative leaders to embrace the creation of an independent ethics agency with far more teeth than currently in state law for the existing agencies charged with overseeing the activities of state workers and lawmakers.

They also want Spitzer's gift ban extended to legislators, which would require approval by the Legislature, and a slew of other reforms to relax the power that deep-pocket special interests have in getting unique attention to their causes at the Capitol.

e-mail: tprecious@buffnews.com

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