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Buffalo Niagara Partnership sets advocacy focus for 2018

Western New York's largest business group once again plans to focus its lobbying efforts on core issues familiar to its members: the high cost of doing business in the state, the need for more trained workers and the importance of encouraging investment in the region.

The Buffalo Niagara Partnership Wednesday released its advocacy agenda for 2018, highlighting the challenges that Western New York and its businesses continue to face from excessive regulation and labor expenses, a lack of skilled workers, and inadequate utility capabilities.

At the same time, the group laid out a series of recommended solutions to those problems, which generally require action or support from lawmakers, regulators or other public-sector agencies. Additionally, the Partnership also identified five "regional priority projects" tied to critical transportation infrastructure that also need state and federal support.

"The policy priorities outlined in this document speak directly to how government at the federal, state and local level can best work together with employers to build a more robust and competitive regional economy," Partnership President and CEO Dottie Gallagher-Cohen and Vice President for Government Affairs Grant Loomis wrote in an introductory letter accompanying the report.

"This document will drive the Partnership's advocacy work for the year, guide our discussions with elected officials and decision-makers, and focus our programming and events over the next 12 months."

The new set of policy priorities — which resembles those of past pronouncements — centers around taxes and regulations, development and construction, workforce, transportation and infrastructure, the cross-border economy and investing in Buffalo Niagara. Still, the group's leaders say they're making progress, citing several new items and last year's victories on issues such as ride-hailing, the elimination of a utility tax and workers' compensation reform.

"Unfortunately we need to bang the drum on many of these things over and over, but we did have a few wins," Gallagher-Cohen said. "Like with any sort of advocacy effort — people need to hear it over and over, and we push where we can make progress. The cost drivers in our regional economy, especially the outliers like [the] scaffold [law], don’t change and neither does our tenacity in pushing for reform."

In its report, the group said New York has the second-worst business tax climate among all 50 states, ranked 49th for individual income taxes, 47th for property taxes and 43rd for sales taxes. It also said that various employer mandates "emanating from Albany" create a burden on companies, citing proposed on-call scheduling regulations from the state Labor Department, as well as the "most expansive paid family leave mandate in the country."

The Partnership urged state leaders to lower the tax burden on commercial property owners and small businesses, while addressing the other concerns, including by lowering health care costs. And it called on the state to ensure that the workers' compensation reforms enacted last year actually work.

On development and construction, the group opposes the expansion of any prevailing-wage mandate to private projects, which it said already inflates public-sector project costs by 20 percent. It called for reforms to the state's Scaffold Law to reduce hefty liability costs on New York businesses. And locally, it wants to strengthen the Erie County Industrial Development Agency's adaptive-reuse policy, while fighting any mandatory inclusionary zoning requirements for development projects in Buffalo.

The Partnership stressed the importance of having qualified employees to take jobs of the future, noting that 20 percent of the local workforce will retire over the next decade, while 6,250 job openings will be created just in advanced business services, advanced manufacturing, tourism and hospitality. It called for reauthorization and expansion of the federal Pell grant program and Perkins Career and Technical Education Act, along with support for community colleges, the Workforce Investment Board and a professional licensing program for immigrants and refugees.

For transportation and infrastructure, the Partnership wants to see upgrades to the state's aging power grid, noting that more than 80 percent of the state's high-voltage power lines went into service prior to 1980. It also urged more investments and funding for transportation, telecommunications and natural gas transmission.

The group urged a renegotiation of the North American Free Trade Agreement to strengthen the "bi-national economy" with the Greater Toronto Area, keeping the border efficient for moving goods and people back and forth, while aligning regulations. According to the Partnership, 517,028 jobs in New York are supported by trade with Canada, which is the state's No. 1 trading partner with $17.6 billion in imports from Canada and $15 billion in exports back.

Finally, the Partnership backs increased investment of tax dollars into higher education and tourism. The group wants more support for the State University of New York system and the Tuition Assistance Program, and it encourages more allocation of the local bed tax to Visit Buffalo Niagara to support tourism marketing. Officials said that if the tourism agency were receiving the same percentage of the bed tax that it did in 2004, it would be operating on a $5.7 million budget, instead of just $3.4 million.

The five regional priority projects include a new agricultural industrial park in Angola that will use existing rail lines with a "complete streets" design to connect the village center to a new job hub. The Partnership also wants to see funding to complete Cars Sharing Main Street in downtown Buffalo and an extension of Metro Rail both north and south. And it supports a partial-depth reconstruction of 2.7 miles of Lower Mountain Road in Lewiston to improve access to Bond Lake Park, as well as creation of the Niagara Scenic Parkway to replace the expressway.

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