Both Buffalo and Erie County are enduring long-term economic decline, and each must respond with a major fiscal structuring with one overriding goal: reducing government spending so it matches what taxpayers can actually afford.
Albany, which needs the same kind of fiscal discipline but is infamous for avoiding it, now is mulling an idea that could help New York's governments at all levels begin to control spending. And a Western New York legislator, Democratic Assemblyman Robin Schimminger, is leading the charge.
Schimminger this week joined Republican Sen. Ray Meier of Oneida County in supporting a constitutional amendment to limit Albany's annual spending increases to an affordable level - so that taxes can also be more affordable.
The amendment would limit budget growth to inflation plus population increases in the preceding year. This would ease the pressure Albany faces, year after year, to spend more than ever on health care, education and other programs. This pressure prompts Albany to increase spending at twice the rate of inflation or more, year after year. And it explains why our taxes are the nation's highest.
Western New York knows as well as any part of the state why this matters: No part of the state has seen more people and jobs driven to other states by high spending and taxes.
Between 1990 and 2005, the Buffalo Niagara region lost jobs, even as the nation sustained a robust growth rate of 22 percent. The losses were especially severe in the manufacturing sector, once the foundation of the region's economy.
To reverse these losses, New York must be more competitive for businesses and jobs, and lower taxes would help produce that result. The Meier-Schimminger proposal would not only help cut state taxes, it would also ease the burden of property taxes by prohibiting Albany from shifting to localities the costs of Medicaid and other programs.
Other states have approved similar checks on spending. The idea, usually called a Taxpayer Bill of Rights, guards against big spending increases during boom years. That's even more important in New York than in most states, because Albany relies inordinately on volatile tax revenues from Wall Street. This year, state officials say the highest-earning 1 percent of New Yorkers will provide 36 percent of income-tax revenue. If Wall Street slows down next year, Albany's cash flow could drop by billions of dollars.
A constitutional spending limit would eliminate boom-and-bust cycles in Albany's finances. It would reduce pressure for tax increases and more fiscal gimmicks. Before long, it would even allow dramatic tax cuts - spurring new business growth and jobs.
If this limit were in place now, it would still allow $2 billion or more in new spending on key needs. That's real money, even in high-spending New York. We've heard plenty of talk about "fiscal reform" in Albany. Schimminger has advanced the reform we truly need.
Matthew Maguire, director of communications for the Business Council of New York State, is moderator of www.upstateblog.net.