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Gov. Cuomo takes long view on variety of subjects

Just as investors are expressing a major lack of confidence in alternative energy companies, Gov. Andrew M. Cuomo defended New York State’s $750 million investment in Buffalo’s new SolarCity plant during a Western New York swing on Thursday.

“Solar is the right place to be,” he said. “Every analyst will tell you that it’s the industry to invest in for the future. Stocks go up and stocks go down.”

In fact, the governor took the long view on a variety of subjects while meeting with editors and reporters of The Buffalo News. He defended his new $154 billion budget, called for raising the minimum wage, and touted his ideas to tighten ethics requirements for legislators, increase upstate economic development efforts and revise various education policies.

But he remained especially bullish on the state’s bet on helping SolarCity launch a 1.2-million-square-foot factory in South Buffalo to produce solar panels. Cuomo said despite a 29 percent drop in the value of SolarCity’s stock on Wednesday alone, he remains a believer.

“There is no undue concern,” he said.

He pointed to the state assistance for the plant now rising on the former site of Republic Steel as an investment that will outlive the rocky road being traveled by all energy companies.

The governor found an ally in Howard A. Zemsky, his economic development commissioner and president of the Empire State Development Corp. He said the state investment is justified “despite the hit.”

“Renewable energy will be in demand and increasingly important worldwide for the rest of our lifetimes,” Zemsky said. “They are the dominant player in the solar panel industry domestically. That hasn’t changed.

“They’re still worth billions of dollars and they have the dominant share in the industry,” he added.

SolarCity’s stock has lost 37 percent of its value in the two days since the company fell short of its growth targets during the fourth quarter and warned that its first-quarter installations also will be less than expected.

The company also said it is sticking with its forecast that it will install 43 percent more solar panels this year than it did last year.

The $900 million Buffalo factory, the centerpiece of Cuomo’s Buffalo Billion economic development initiative, is expected to employ about 1,460 workers once it hits full production, churning out 9,000 to 10,000 solar panels daily. The biggest solar panel production facility in the Western Hemisphere, the plant will have the annual capacity to build enough solar panels to generate one gigawatt of electricity.

Zemsky, meanwhile, said he still likes what he sees in the industry.

“This company is still worth billions of dollars and has a dominant market share in the industry,” he said. “We know from other industries that when there are rough waters, that sometimes the industry will consolidate. I think they’re in position to emerge from that likely industry consolidation in the coming years, stronger.”

The governor also touched on a variety of other matters, including:

Buffalo Billion probe

As Preet Bharara, the U.S. attorney in Manhattan, investigates the state’s bidding process for the SolarCity project, Cuomo said he has not been contacted as part of the probe.

“I have heard absolutely nothing about it,” he said.

New Bills stadium

The coming $1.9 billion, multi-use stadium in Los Angeles has raised the bar for NFL stadiums. But the governor said the state is not yet “buying in” on a new Bills stadium in Buffalo.

“I’m not going there yet,” he said. “We’ll deal with the new stadium issue when we have to.”

The Bills’ lease expires in 2023, and there already is significant community chatter about a new stadium. Asked about the possibility and the percentage of taxpayer dollars that might be involved, Cuomo instead focused on how Terry Pegula’s purchase of the Bills 17 months ago has secured the team here.

“That was the fear, moving the Bills,” he noted. “That’s what the owners collectively wanted, the Bills in Toronto or Los Angeles, because of the larger revenue share. That’s what we were up against. Pegula’s attraction to the region” squashed those concerns.

Education reform

Reformers considered Cuomo’s support of a report deeming state tests unreliable and calling for a delay to teacher evaluations as a step backward for improving New York’s school system. The governor, however, deflected the idea that decisions made in response to the Common Core task force report indicated a departure from his reform agenda.

Rather, he said, the state responded to the concerns of parents, who last year opted to have their children not take standardized tests in record numbers.

He also downplayed the notion his acceptance of the report had anything to do with the influential New York State United Teachers, noting he has clashed with the group “since I was born.”

“There was no backwards step taken,” Cuomo said. “Those are parents who are telling their children not to take the test. We’re not talking about the teachers union here. This is about parents losing faith in the education system.”

Still, he said the state did a poor job educating parents about the Common Core, the changes to the state tests and what the new results mean. That lack of communication ultimately drove negative public opinion about the state’s shift to the new standards.

“It’s worth taking the time to go back and review what we did,” he said.

School receivership

Even as NYSUT challenges the governor’s school receivership law in court, Cuomo said he believes the statute will survive the court challenge. He defended the law, which is now the subject of a legal challenge for violating teachers’ right to collectively negotiate their contracts.

One of the primary arguments in the case filed this week is that tests deemed unreliable by a state task force can not be used to place schools in receivership.

Cuomo, however, echoed the sentiments of other supporters of the law, noting that schools in receivership – including 25 in Buffalo – have struggled for years to meet state expectations.

“You don’t need last year’s tests to determine these schools have issues,” he said.

“We have failed generations,” he added. “How did you do that in good conscience?”

Cuomo stood firmly behind the law, which allows for a receiver to make changes without the approval of the elected school board and teachers union. He said it is a different structure that could prove more effective than systems that have struggled for decades to show improvement.

“We tried it this way, we tried it this way, we tried it this way. It failed, it failed, it failed. How about we do something different?” he said. “To continue doing what you’re doing that you know failed is absurd.”

State’s homeless plan

Buffalo shelters for the homeless will be put under scrutiny, Cuomo said, along with others in the state. Inspections are under way here and will be led by City Comptroller Mark J.F. Schroeder, and will examine shelters’ physical and security conditions as well as finances.

Cuomo said he picked Buffalo and New York City for the homeless shelter inspections because they have the most, adding serious crimes have occurred recently inside homeless shelters in the state.

“So there are issues,” he said.

In January, he issued an order requiring homeless men and women to be evaluated by local authorities and brought into shelters when the temperature drops below 32 degrees. On Thursday, Cuomo said that cold-weather rule has resulted in change.

“The enforcement went way up,” he said.

Heroin addiction

The heroin epidemic keeps getting worse, the governor said, despite the millions of dollars spent on additional treatment beds, public awareness campaigns and Narcan training.

“Anecdotally, it’s getting worse. It’s not getting better,” Cuomo said. “We talk about it all the time; what else to do.

“It’s very, very difficult,” he added. “We’re doing everything we can. I would not claim success at all at this point. I’m pleased that we’re doing everything we can. I think it’s the right fight. But I don’t know if we’re making a lot of headway, unfortunately.”

The governor’s remarks came just two days after Erie County Health Commissioner Dr. Gale R. Burstein and federal authorities issued an “emergency warning,” urging drug addicts to discard any packet of heroin they recently purchased but had not used. Twenty-three people died as a result of opiate overdoses in Erie County during an 11-day period that started Jan. 29.

News Staff Reporters David Robinson, Donn Esmonde, Tiffany Lankes, Charity Vogel and Patrick Lakamp contributed to this report. email: