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Ethics reform, economic development must be the priorities for state government

If Gov. Andrew M. Cuomo were to focus intently on only two main issues – ethics and economic development – next week’s State of the State address could be the most significant in the memory of New Yorkers.

Other important issues need attention, to be sure, but these two are of towering significance in a state that is one of the nation’s most expensive and, simultaneously, most corrupt. Does anyone not think those problems are connected?

Corruption is, without doubt, the more immediate issue. It pollutes the political environment, making good policy unlikely to the point of impossible. And with last year’s felony convictions of two former leaders of the State Legislature, the issue is – or should be – red hot.

The current leaders of the Senate and Assembly will never be more open to reforming their chambers’ self-dealing rules than they are today, burdened by the shame brought on their institutions by former Senate Republican Leader Dean Skelos and former Democratic Assembly Speaker Sheldon Silver. They still may not go along – Albany’s politicians are easily seduced by the easy money that has been theirs for the taking – but if Cuomo truly pushed the need for reform, and kept pushing it, the prospects of real change would be at their historic zenith.

Among those changes should be tight caps on political donations and a ban on outside income, the lack of which have played prominent roles in Albany’s corruption.

Meanwhile, economic development must remain a top priority not only for Western New York, but for all of upstate, which has suffered in large part because of the way Albany has conducted business.

The costs of government remain stubbornly high in this state, producing the nation’s heaviest cumulative tax burden while providing little in the way of important services to justify it. Indeed, many states are able to do more with less, but then, they aren’t all so dominated by special interests – itself a form of corruption.

Buffalo and Erie County have benefited greatly in recent years from Cuomo’s Buffalo Billion, a focused economic development program that has produced tremendous results and promises more. That assistance needs to continue, both for Western New York and other upstate areas where the economy remains weak.

Programs similar to the Buffalo Billion may be useful, but over the long haul, the critical need will be to lower taxes. New York’s are far too high. They create the need for special programs to lower the cost of doing business here. The state is an expensive outlier on taxes; to secure the economy over the long term, Albany needs to move the state toward the national middle.

In other areas, Cuomo needs to retain his commitment to education reform. He may want to make adjustments in his approach, but he has been declarative about an obvious issue: New Yorkers spending billions of dollars on education without any way of assessing how well the system is performing and, just as important, where it is misfiring. He can’t back away from that.

A fair and workable evaluation system is necessary, as is continued commitment to the high standards developed in the Common Core. This is no time to back away from fixing the problems in education, in particular those that are endemic to the Big Five school districts, including Buffalo.

With his plan to invest $8 billion in downstate transportation projects, Cuomo also needs to pay attention to the crying needs of upstate infrastructure, including roads and bridges, but also aging water and sewer systems. Washington will need to play a role in such efforts, because they are endemic, especially in the aging systems of the cold-winter Rust Belt, but Albany can get the ball rolling.

Cuomo will have more than these subjects in his combination State of the State/budget address on Wednesday, but if he can push even these through to some resolution, he will have had a strong year and done historic work for New Yorkers.