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Cuomo outmaneuvers legislators who wanted more say on Buffalo Billion

ALBANY – Lawmakers for months demanded Gov. Andrew M. Cuomo give them a bigger role in dispensing billions of dollars in economic-development aid and also insisted on more transparency in selecting projects for big tax breaks and grants.

Cuomo gave them his answer this week: No.

And there was nothing the Legislature could do about it.

When lawmakers failed to get a deal on a new state budget over the weekend, Cuomo sent them an emergency “extender” bill to keep state government running for two months. But it was not a simple, 60-day extension requiring Albany to meet its basic financial obligations, such as paying state workers or reimbursing hospitals for Medicaid patient care.

Instead, the bill included billions of dollars in spending for the entire fiscal year, including major economic-development programs, such as $500 million for the Buffalo Billion’s second phase, and funds for highway, parks, airports, environmental protection and other areas of the budget.

Left out was any change giving legislators a larger role in deciding how money like the Buffalo Billion is spent. It also left out any reference to lawmakers’ demands for more oversight or monitoring, such as a database showing jobs created and money spent on economic development.

WNY legislators want 'eyes and ears' on Buffalo Billion II

“The money is there, but no changes,’’ Sen. John DeFrancisco, a Syracuse-area Republican. “And that’s where the Legislature is really in a huge box because you either vote no on that extender if you don’t have that language, and do you stop the government? Or you get it going hoping that as we conclude the process we can get some more language in there.’’

The Cuomo administration did not respond to a request for comment, but this session of the Legislature again shows the immense powers afforded governors of New York, compared with most other states, in the crafting of state budgets.

There is little chance of the legislature later adding oversight. Sources involved in the budget talks say several ideas that lawmakers floated were rejected in tentative deals. Dead was a legislative plan that members of 10 regional councils – which  provide advice to Cuomo on how to spend $750 million annually in economic-development funds – publicly reveal information about their personal finances. Many members of other public boards must make such information public.

Increased oversight of economic-development spending would be left for the governor’s office – under what one official described as a tentative deal – to carry out on an administrative basis.

A federal judge in Manhattan on Thursday is expected to set a trial date in the corruption case federal prosecutors brought against eight individuals, including several with ties to Cuomo. The alleged bid-rigging and pay-to-play case involved longtime Cuomo advisor and friend Joseph Percoco, former SUNY Polytechnic head Alain E. Kaloyeros and three former top executives with Buffalo’s LPCiminelli. One of the alleged bid rigging projects involved the state’s construction program at the SolarCity plant at RiverBend.

Eight plead not guilty in Albany pay-to-play case

In January, lawmakers in both houses said Cuomo would face new scrutiny over his economic-development programs. But Assemblyman Robin L. Schimminger, D-Kenmore, chairman of the Assembly’s Economic Development Committee, said the governor placed legislators in a tough spot.

“Faced with an absence of an agreed-upon budget on March 31, he shoved up to the Legislature an extender which contained what he wanted and what he didn’t want,’’ the lawmaker said. That “didn’t want” category included efforts by lawmakers to reach into Cuomo’s economic-development domain.

Schimminger said if the changes aren’t approved in a final budget deal, the Legislature has a few more months until the session ends to pass changes. Cuomo could veto such a bill, and lawmakers know their best chance of getting something approved is in the budget.

Schimminger noted a number of economic-development funding pots were not included in Monday’s emergency extender bill, providing leverage for lawmakers. “So stay tuned,’’ he said.

What will $500 million in Buffalo Billion II buy?

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