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The plight of upstate ; Legislators must make a priority of removing roadblocks to growth

With the nation's economy rebounding, the Buffalo area was still losing jobs. So were Syracuse, Binghamton and Poughkeepsie. That was 25 years ago.

Five years ago, Eliot Spitzer remarked during his campaign for governor that "if you drive from Schenectady to Niagara Falls, you'll see an economy that is devastated. It looks like Appalachia."

This week, Gov. Andrew M. Cuomo called the upstate economy "truly an economic crisis."

So much attention. So little change.

Upstate remains the true victim of New York's reckless spending and high taxes. It does not enjoy the economic vitality of the city-state that is the New York metropolis.

Everyone knows that upstate has flagged for decades. Another governor named Cuomo placed new prisons in snowbound upstate burgs that were unlikely to draw any other new employer. The alphabet soup of economic development agencies disbursed millions upon millions of incentives with typical New York results: mediocre.

As the governor detailed in his State of the State speech last week, growth in the nation's gross domestic product averaged 2.7 percent each year from 2001 to 2006 while upstate GDP averaged 1.7 percent.

E.J. McMahon of the Empire Center for New York State Policy recently observed that over the past two decades, nearly all of New York's weak job growth occurred south of the mid-Hudson Valley, meaning downstate. Upstate, aside from the Capital Region, remained a picture of stagnation when measuring net growth in private-sector jobs.

The new governor's suggestion to create regional councils to drive the economic development strategy is a good idea, but it's no silver bullet. Cuomo also needs to make clear to his department heads and inner circle that he expects recommendations that result in job growth, including the strategic placement of necessary state offices.

Mainly, though, to clean up their image as unfriendly to business, state leaders must get to work on the assorted policy changes that signal a new attitude in Albany: capping property taxes, consolidating redundant state agencies and local governments, simplifying the business regulations that make other states more attractive by comparison and ensuring fair elections that would make elected leaders more responsive to the public. As an aside, our leaders can also get moving on the transportation improvements that better connect upstate with stronger economies: High-speed rail, for example, or for that matter, a totally free Thruway system.

Here's another suggestion: The Senate and Assembly require each member, all 212 of them, to drive twice each year along the Thruway from Schenectady to Niagara Falls -- as Spitzer must have done -- past the hollowed factories of the Mohawk Valley and the sleepy expanse of Syracuse's Carrier Circle, through the Finger Lakes and its forlorn monument to the once-transformative Erie Canal, and finally into Niagara Falls where the towering Niagara Falls, Ont., looks down on its forlorn cousin, Niagara Falls, N.Y.

Our lawmakers will see just two signs of excitement: a skyscraper rising from the rural landscape near Verona, and a high-rise in Niagara Falls -- both the work of Indian-run casino gambling interests, nothing more. Our lawmakers will see that Cooperstown, site of so many of their political fund-raising events, is not like the rest of upstate.

Aside from the statistics about tepid job growth in population, private-sector jobs and GDP, the drive along the upstate Thruway, or the view from a passenger train en route from Schenectady to Buffalo, would offer lawmakers fine reason to agree that the upstate economy is in a crisis, worthy of their best efforts to reform the way they do business.

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