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Cuomo calls on residents to insist on changes ; Jamestown audience urged to push reforms

As Gov. Andrew M. Cuomo took his reforms road show to Jamestown, his message was clear.

Unless residents become agents for change, Cuomo said Thursday, special interests will continue to dictate the agenda, and the state will remain mired in "dysfunction, gridlock and corruption."

A governor does not come in, wave a magic wand, "and suddenly everything changes," Cuomo said during his first visit to Western New York since in his inauguration.

"You know why it hasn't changed for 20 years?" Cuomo asked the crowd that crammed into the main hall of the Robert H. Jackson Center. "Because you haven't insisted on it."

State government will embrace reform only when constituents "make it change," Cuomo said to applause.

"Politicians have very good hearing, or they're not politicians for long," he said.

The Cuomo tour, which will continue with stops in Watertown today and several other locations in coming weeks, is designed to give a new governor more access to the electorate before a bruising fight with the Legislature on closing a $10 billion budget gap.

Earlier this week, the governor talked of cooperative discussions with lawmakers while trying to draw voters -- and, therefore, reluctant legislators -- to his side on the budget, a limit on local property tax increases and new ethics laws.

"This is precisely the kind of tool that governors have that the Legislature does not," Robert Ward, deputy director of the Rockefeller Institute of Government, said of the appearances planned across the state. "A governor might not get as much attention as the president, but certainly in smaller communities a visit from a state chief executive commands attention."

Cuomo's 35-minute speech in Jamestown mirrored the themes highlighted last week in his State of the State address.

Citing the projected budget gap of $10 billion, he underscored the need for spending cuts. He said raising taxes in a state that is already known as the "tax capital of the nation" is not an option, nor is pretending that the state is in good shape. He then turned to a group of students from Jamestown High School, telling them, "Denial is not a life strategy."

About 220 people were on hand for the address in the main hall of the museum-community meeting space in downtown Jamestown. Another 120 people listened to the speech in a separate room. The crowd ranged from high school students and senior citizens to business leaders and elected officials from throughout the region.

David Brown, 20, participates in the Jamestown-based Youth Build Program, which helps to train young people who dropped out of school. He said he was impressed by Cuomo's speech but recognizes that talking about reforming government is easier than making changes.

"It's not all about 'say,' it's mostly about 'do,' " Brown said. "If he can say and do, it would be very great for our state."

Harold J. Bush Jr., supervisor of the Wyoming County Town of Gainesville, said state mandates, including state pension costs, are ravaging communities.

"I hope we can get all this done. We've got to do something," Bush said. "State mandates are just choking the life right out of us."

Cuomo touched on his plan for mandate relief. He has empaneled a team to examine Medicaid reforms and has established a task force, which includes Jamestown Mayor Samuel Teresi, to review ways to slash the number of state-imposed mandates on local governments and school districts.

Sue McNamara, director of Wyoming County's Workforce Investment Board, said she left the speech with "great hope."

"I think change is overdue," she said. "[Cuomo] has some energy and a willingness to make change."

Seth Bergman, a senior at Jamestown High School, came to the speech knowing little about Cuomo. He said the governor's push to limit tax increases and reform state spending practices impressed him.

"I think I've developed a pretty positive opinion of him," the 17-year-old student said.

The public reach-outs by governors often work best when focused on a single major issue, Ward said, such as the property tax limit debate that is starting to rage at the Capitol.

"It can be useful to try to educate the people about the need to cut spending, but it's something of a harder sell because you're never going to educate most of the public about the nuances of the Medicaid program or the school-aid formula. But everyone knows what a limit on property taxes means," Ward said.