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UPSTATERS DON'T FEEL VERY BULLISH

Bill Clinton was right: It really is the economy, stupid. It was that way when he ran for president a dozen years ago, and it's still that way today, especially in upstate New York.

"We don't have a lot of confidence in the economy as a whole," says Lou Jean Fleron, the director of economic development initiatives at Cornell University's School of Industrial and Labor Relations in Buffalo.

That's for sure. More than four out of five upstate residents surveyed by Cornell for a new poll rate the state's economy as either fair or poor, and they give state government equally low marks.

"What this poll is particularly useful in measuring is people's perception of what's happening around them," says Erik C. Nisbet, a senior research associate at Cornell's Survey Research Institute, which last week released the results of its poll of 820 New Yorkers -- split evenly between upstate and downstate.

It shows that New Yorkers are, by and large, know that New York -- and especially upstate -- is taking much longer to come out of the recession than the rest of the country. At the same time, there's rampant frustration with Albany's growing dysfunctionality, which finally has prompted a modest groundswell for reform.

So it's little wonder that better than four out of 10 upstate residents rank employment and the state economy as the biggest problem facing New York, with more than one in four putting jobs at the top of the list.

"That indicates to me that people are dissatisfied with the political environment in New York as a whole," said Lawrence Panaro, secretary-treasurer of AFSCME Local 264 in Buffalo.

In fact, jobs are seen as the state's biggest problem, regardless of income level, although higher income households are less worried about employment and twice as concerned about the health of the economy as lower income residents. Democrats were six times more likely to cite employment as the state's No. 1 problem than Republicans, who ranked state taxes slightly ahead of jobs.

Nearly six out of 10 upstate residents think it got harder to find a job over the last year, which actually was an improvement from 2003, when more than 70 percent said it was more difficult to find a job.

Yet those of us who are working still feel rather secure. Nearly 90 percent of the upstate residents surveyed said they felt their jobs were secure. Among downstate residents, only 82 percent said they felt they had job security.

Yet there is an unmistakable -- but faint -- sense that things are starting to turn around. Just 17 percent of the people think the economy is improving, but that's up from a mere 3 percent last year. "People are thinking it might be getting better," Fleron says.

Still that upbeat sentiment is drowned out by the 54 percent who think the state's economy is getting worse. "That's a staggering number," Fleron says.

The poll also highlights the divide between upstate and downstate. Downstate residents were almost twice as likely as upstate residents to say the economy improved during the last year and downstaters were 50 percent more likely than upstaters to predict that the economy would improve in the coming year. That mirrors the findings of Siena College's monthly consumer confidence survey, which shows downstate residents feeling better about their prospects, while confidence levels are declining upstate.

Not only that, but our concerns aren't the same. Downstate residents ranked education as the state's second-biggest problem, with state taxes -- the No. 2 concern upstate -- finishing last on the downstate list of complaints.

"They are very different," says Yasamin Miller, the survey institute's director. "Downstate, they're concerned about public education, whereas upstate, they're concerned about the economy and taxes. Clearly, one size doesn't fit all."

e-mail: drobinson@buffnews.com

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