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Fact-checking the debate: Some stretching of truth

Candidates of all stripes will put the best face on their own deeds and assign the worst scores to their opponents. Here’s how the truth was pushed and pulled in Wednesday’s fast-moving debate, mostly by Gov. Andrew M. Cuomo and Republican challenger Rob Astorino, the Westchester County executive.

• Cuomo’s claim that 511,000 jobs have been created since he took office: Additional data takes some of the gloss off the statement. New York, especially its upstate counties, trails the nation as a whole in private-sector job growth. Statewide, private-sector jobs grew by 1.6 percent in the past year, trailing the national rate of 2.3 percent, the state Labor Department reported this month. Most of the past year’s private-sector job creation occurred in the 10-county downstate region, which grew by 2.3 percent. Jobs in the 52 upstate counties grew at a modest 0.3 percent, and 0.5 percent in Buffalo Niagara.

• On Cuomo’s claim that Westchester County has the nation’s heaviest tax burden: The Tax Policy Center of the Urban Institute and Brookings Institution found that counties with the highest property taxes are clustered around New York City, and the lowest are in Alabama and Louisiana. Westchester, the study reported, was the most expensive, with average tax bills of $9,647 a year, followed by Long Island’s Nassau County and New Jersey’s Bergen County. But those are the taxes paid for all levels of government that levy property taxes, not just the county-government taxes that a county executive helps to set. Several New York counties pay high taxes compared with the rest of the country, the authors found.

• Astorino’s statement that it’s time to allow fracking in New York: As Westchester county executive, Astorino found reason for concern. Astorino, as Cuomo pointed out Wednesday, signed a county law in December 2012 banning the disposal of waste from natural gas drilling within Westchester’s borders. Other New York counties have adopted similar measures. As for fracking’s effect on job creation, average annual employment in Pennsylvania’s oil and natural gas industry increased by some 15,000 workers from 2007-12, according to the federal Bureau of Labor Statistics. That’s a sizable number, but not enough to give jobs to the 641,000 unemployed New Yorkers that Astorino mentioned.

While Cuomo has made no decision on fracking, by letting his state Health Department continue to examine the matter, he encouraged the consumption of natural gas by agreeing that the coal-fired power plant in Dunkirk should convert to natural gas. “In my opinion it has nothing to do with a decision on fracking,” Cuomo said last year.

•Cuomo’s statement that the Moreland Commission to Investigate Public Corruption was independent: In addressing the New York Times expose revealing the governor’s top aides interfered with the commission, Cuomo officials asserted the commission could not be independent because it was created under his authority. Further, the governor’s office contended it would be a ridiculous conflict for the commission to investigate the governor.

Cuomo dismantled the fledgling commission after just nine months – while it had open investigations. Preet Bharara, the U.S. Attorney in Manhattan, who has taken over the commission’s work, made that point again during a radio interview hours before the debate began. When asked earlier this year if Cuomo’s office could be part of any future probe, Bharara responded, “If there are questions that are appropriate to ask … there are strong-willed and aggressive, but fair, people in my office who will ask those questions.” Astorino used this uncertainty to again assert Wednesday that the governor could be indicted.

•Astorino’s legal issues in Westchester: Astorino’s predecessor in 2009 agreed to settle a fair-housing lawsuit brought by the federal Department of Housing and Urban Development. The Journal News, a newspaper serving the Lower Hudson Valley, says Astorino has battled HUD since taking office by contending the deal takes away land-use decisions from local towns. As a result, HUD has withheld more than $20 million to local governments. Cuomo also said Astorino has been accused of racketeering. He didn’t say that it is based on a civil complaint by a political opponent of Astorino, who accuses Astorino with packing the Independence Party’s rolls.

• Astorino’s claim that New York has the nation’s worst business climate: The dubious distinction is bestowed on New York each year by the non-profit Tax Foundation, which researches federal and state tax policy. But according to Crain’s NY, because the state Legislature this year modified the tax code, the Tax Foundation indicated New York’s ranking in the State Business Tax Climate Index will likely improve when the next annual analysis is produced.

Cuomo’s statement that the final cost of the Tappan Zee Bridge is not yet known: His campaign website puts the price tag at $3.9 billion and brags that it is “more than $1 billion less than previously estimated, thanks in part to the governor’s design-build legislation.”

Construction started more than a year ago on the bridge, one of the most expensive public works projects in the nation, and Cuomo still has not laid out his plans for financing it. He had wanted to use $511 million in federal clean water loans, but the federal Environmental Protection Agency said no to all but $30 million. The three-mile bridge over the Hudson River, linking Rockland and Westchester counties, will be part of the Thruway, and the head of the Thruway has said tolls will be used to pay back bonds. Motorists, upstate and downstate, want to know if and how much their tolls will go up.

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