The man with the toughest job in America came to town Monday. Dan Gundersen is the latest in a line of public officials promising to inject life into the upstate economy.
It reminds me of the scenes in "ER" where the patient flatlines and doctors, desperate to save him, place defibrillator paddles on his chest. After a few massive jolts, the TV docs sadly shake their heads and pull the sheet over the poor guy.
We lie on the operating table, nearly comatose -- Buffalo, Syracuse, the whole fallen-and-can't-get-up upstate bunch. Gundersen is a Pennsylvania import with a tight smile and the stoic look of a climber at the foot of Everest. He heads the economic-development co-headquarters that new Gov. Eliot Spitzer created here. Given our decades-long job-bleed, it's a wise yet obvious move, like opening a lemonade stand on the Equator. You go where the business is -- or, in our case, isn't.
I don't mean to sound pessimistic. And I'm not, not totally. But we have heard it before. The upstate economy and Albany's complicity in creating a job-hostile climate has left countless reformers and job-promisers bleeding on the side of the road.
When Buffalo Niagara Enterprise was created in 1999, we were guaranteed 50,000 new jobs in five years.
When Hillary Clinton ran for the Senate, she promised 200,000 jobs during her first term.
Spitzer is smart enough to avoid a jobs prediction. So there is progress on the false-promises front.
That is not all. Spitzer could have hired one of the "usual suspects" -- some good, most uninspired -- pushed by various local politicians and business leaders. He instead found a big-resume outsider. Good for him.
Spitzer says aloud what previous governors whispered: A big part of upstate's problem is Albany. Follow the bread crumbs, and the trail of high taxes and other costs that make businesses run screaming in fear leads to the country's most dysfunctional state government.
Let us count the ways. From laws that drive up construction costs and pad municipal workers' pay and benefits, to overstuffed public payrolls and (consequently) pensions, to the state's unharnessed public health (Medicaid) monster, most tax roads -- and loads -- begin in Albany. The public's needs are pummeled by special interests -- mainly the various muscular public unions -- and the politicians who protect them in return for perks and campaign dollars.
"We have created a perfect storm of unaffordability," Spitzer said.
You can't get businesses to flock here unless you take bricks off the tax load that drives them away. You can't take bricks off the load unless you change the way Albany works. It is that simple. But simple doesn't mean easy.
Albany's culture of taxes, add-ons, perks and patronage is thicker than the concrete that embeds Jimmy Hoffa. Nothing changes unless Spitzer -- who started nicely with a $6 billion tax cut -- takes a jackhammer to everything from overstuffed public payrolls to a Cadillac public health program.
"If there is progress this year on some of those cost issues," said Ken Adams of the state's Business Council, "it sends a message to businesses looking to come here and gives Gundersen an argument [to make]."
If Albany doesn't change, then the cost of everything from turning on a light bulb to teaching a schoolkid stays insanely high. And Gundersen has as much chance of, say, luring one of those auto plants Toyota will build as I have of beating Lance Armstrong in a bike race.
It is nice that Gundersen is here. But before he can do something in Buffalo, Spitzer has to do something about Albany.