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Cuomo goes out on a limb by pushing 'Buffalo Billion'

The Cuomo administration's plans to make the Buffalo area a $1 billion test case for economic development is expected to take some twists and turns in the coming months as the 2012 state budget is debated and legislators from other regions ask a simple question: What about us?

But lawmakers from Western New York do not believe the full $1 billion commitment will be finalized this year -- and nor should it, they say.

That's because the Cuomo plan is supposed to occur over the next five years. And it has been kept intentionally vague in many aspects, in part, to let companies tell Albany what they need -- be it direct cash or tax credits or low-cost energy or regulatory relief -- to move to Buffalo.

Indeed, if the $1 billion were to be a part of this year's budget deliberations it is likely, lawmakers say, the pot for Buffalo could get diluted by lawmakers from other parts of the state looking for shares for their communities.

"Shelly Silver's idea of all these expenditures is it's always one-third, one-third, one-third," State Sen. George Maziarz, a Newfane Republican, said of the Assembly Speaker and the typical Albany deal that creates economic development funding streams with a third each going to the Assembly, State Senate and governor.

"I'm going to prevent that on the Senate side," Maziarz said.

In a meeting earlier this month with Cuomo, lawmakers from Western New York referenced the scuttled Verizon data center project in Niagara County and the Geico expansion in Erie County as examples in which companies sought more than just straight cash deals from the state.

In the case of Geico -- which, like The Buffalo News, is owned by Berkshire Hathaway -- it meant, in part, expanding Empire Zone tax breaks to an area technically outside Western New York's special zone status boundaries.

"Every indication is the governor is open to those ideas," said Assemblyman Robin L. Schimminger, a Kenmore Democrat and chairman of the Assembly's economic development committee.

"Regulatory reform or a carve-out is going to have to be a part of this," Maziarz said. Maziarz said the hope for the $1 billion will be what happened to the Albany area when former Senate Majority Leader Joseph Bruno spearheaded an effort to bring a huge computer chip manufacturing company to his Senate district.

"Joe Bruno went and knocked on their door and said you locate in the Albany area, specifically his Senate district, and the state would come up with whatever they needed. It's been billions of dollars since then," Maziarz said. "And in the long run, it's going to change the Capital District."

But with the plans not flushed out when Cuomo revealed the $1 billion in his State of the State address at the beginning of the month, some people were left skeptical.

Western New York has heard bold plans before: the massive: a $5 billion makeover of the University at Buffalo's campuses, which was scaled down last year, or the $2.3 billion "clean coal" plant proposed years ago at the Huntley power station in the Town of Tonawanda, or the wind farms located off the shoreline in Lake Erie, or the downtown redevelopment that was to be spawned by the scuttled location of a Bass Pro store in Buffalo.

"People may be skeptical. I hope people aren't cynical," Cuomo said earlier this month.

But lawmakers say Cuomo has put his own political neck on the line by making the "Buffalo Billion" such a prominent part of his State of the State address.

"To a person, the delegation is appreciative of this affirmation of a commitment by the governor to Western New York. It is a refreshing pledge of state resources to our region," Schimminger said.

One of the chief challenges for Cuomo and Western New York lawmakers will come from other regions of the state that may want equal treatment when it comes to job creation efforts.

While he proposed a $1 billion fund for Buffalo, Cuomo also floated a massive new development effort for parts of Queens and midtown Manhattan, and his administration is pressing ahead for a multibillion-dollar new bridge to replace the Tappan Zee Bridge that crosses the Hudson River between Rockland and Westchester counties.

Maziarz said the Buffalo and Niagara Falls area has often been among the state's highest rates for unemployment, housing vacancy and teen pregnancy rates. The 2010 Census, and the region's population declines, again showed the need for special treatment, the lawmaker said.

"It's going to be up to us in Western New York," Maziarz said of the political effort to keep Cuomo's $1 billion promise from being watered down.