ALBANY – The co-chairs of the governor's Western New York regional economic development council are criticizing state lawmakers for insisting that "inappropriate” levels of information about the personal finances of members of the advisory panels be made public.
The 10 regional councils around the state advise the Cuomo administration on how to spend $750 million a year in various economic development grants, tax breaks and other incentives. After several top economic development programs became targets of federal corruption prosecutors, lawmakers this year want a bigger role in the regional council process, as well as requiring council members to make annual public disclosures about their finances to avoid conflicts of interest.
“Now several members want to derail the REDCs by requiring their members to disclose personal financial information to a degree that is inappropriate for a private citizen volunteer,’’ Virginia Horvath and Jeff Belt said in a Feb. 27 letter to members of the Western New York legislative delegation.
Lawmakers want the public financial disclosure to better ensure there are no connections between those who help decide where major infusions of economic development incentives are sent and the recipients.
The Cuomo administration has said such information is not routinely required of volunteers to state boards and that the disclosure will put a chilling effect on recruiting members of the economic advisory councils.
Horvath, president of SUNY Fredonia, and Belt, president of SolEpoxy Inc., said the levels of ethical protections – council members sign annual codes of conduct and undergo ethics training – are adequate.
But the two Cuomo appointees to the Western New York panel went further in their criticism of lawmakers. They defended the regional council approach, after critics said they dole out huge amounts of public money controlled by the governor's administration.
But Horvath and Belt said the regional council approach “replaced the old scattershot doling out of economic development funds through assemblymen and senators with a strategic approach that is working. The old pork barrel funding mechanism accomplished little and, in fact, squandered taxpayer dollars.’’
Michael Whyland, a spokesman for Assembly Speaker Carl Heastie, defended the questions being raised by lawmakers about the regional councils. "Members want to make sure that there is transparency and accountability in the way public funds are spent. This is an ongoing discussion,'' Whyland said.
"It's also important to point out that the legislature has gladly submitted to these transparency initiatives on projects nominated by members in order to assure the public that taxpayer dollars are being spent in an efficient and effective way,'' Whyland added.
The Assembly gave a more formal response at the Capitol on Wednesday, as it advanced legislation out of the economic development committee to require the regional councils be formally put into state statute. That, the legislation states, would require members of the councils to publicly reveal information about the personal finances. A memo accompanying the legislation states that there is now “no means of ensuring that these individuals are serving in the best interests of the state and not engaging in self-serving activities.”
The council members from the 10 regions are all appointed by Cuomo. Lawmakers note there are a slew of state and local boards whose volunteer members have to reveal their financial affairs each year to the state’s ethics agency.