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Legislative leaders mum after meeting on $485 million SolarCity request is scrubbed

ALBANY – State officials hope to try again next Wednesday to approve $485 million to complete the SolarCity project at Buffalo’s RiverBend complex, though legislators say they still want the Cuomo administration to provide more specifics about the funding before that meeting.

Lawmakers in the Assembly and Senate are, in the words of one source, a “bit spooked” about the timing of the large, lump sum request for $485 million and the revelation less than three weeks ago that federal prosecutors subpoenaed Gov. Andrew Cuomo’s office as part of the investigation of the Buffalo Billion and other state-funded programs.

Construction on the project to house the SolarCity manufacturing facility at RiverBend is presently fully funded, thanks to an $82.4 million bailout in March by the state Dormitory Authority. That funding ended temporary layoffs of nearly 200 subcontractors during an embarrassing cash-flow problem in state government. But officials would not say Tuesday when that authority’s funding stream will run dry.

One source close to the project said cash-flow problems could recur in coming weeks if the Public Authorities Control Board does not approve funding at next week’s meeting.

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A meeting set for Wednesday by the Public Authorities Control Board to approve the final infusion of state cash for the RiverBend complex was scrubbed Monday evening just hours after the leaders of the Legislature did not publicly commit to approving the funding request by Cuomo’s economic development agency.

On Tuesday, after an event in Manhattan, Cuomo downplayed the situation.

“That’s just a scheduling issue,” Cuomo said of the postponed control board meeting.

The governor’s budget division said the scrubbed meeting is now set for May 25 at the Capitol. The control board has five members, but the three members who represent the governor, Assembly Speaker Carl Heastie and Senate Majority Leader John Flanagan hold the only official voting powers, and they must unanimously agree for any funding request to be approved. The panel annually approves billions for capital projects around the state.

Three state offices involved in Buffalo Billion spending decisions – the governor’s budget division, the Empire State Development Corp. and SUNY Polytechnic – would not answer questions about the $485 million or precisely when the funding pot needs to be tapped in order to keep construction underway at the SolarCity facility.

SolarCity officials did not comment Tuesday.

The $485 million for the RiverBend project was approved in April in the state budget as part of a last-minute deal that also included $200 million for construction of a pharmaceuticals plant in Dunkirk. The money cannot flow, though, until approved by the Public Authorities Control Board.

Assemblyman Robin Schimminger, a Kenmore Democrat who heads the Assembly’s economic development committee, noted that the $485 million was inserted into the budget talks “literally at the 11th hour” by Cuomo. He noted that Cuomo did not propose the funding in his original budget submission in January nor in two amendment periods in February.

Schimminger said, “It’s very fair to say that part of the willingness at the time of legislative leaders to greenlight that funding … was because it’s all subject to PACB approval because it’s a capital funding item.”

Schimminger noted the timing of the $485 million request before the control board, which comes as U.S. Attorney Preet Bharara has subpoenaed Cuomo’s office, other state agencies, individuals and private companies that do business with the state in an expanding Buffalo Billion probe that is looking at a host of dealings across the state.

The lawmaker said Cuomo has retained a private lawyer to investigate spending in the Buffalo Billion program.

“The Legislature would be remiss in not doing the same, and I don’t say that in any way to slow down the project, (but) the public is rightfully asking some questions now,” Schimminger said.

On Monday, Heastie and Flanagan both would not publicly commit to approving the $485 million on the control board’s agenda for the since-scuttled Wednesday meeting. Both said they needed more information before committing. Legislative sources have said the funding request included some vague references to possible future, unspecified funding beyond the RiverBend project.

“It’s of no surprise to me, and in fact comforting, to know that there will be intelligent and critical – in a constructive way – eyes cast on this very, very large infusion of money to a project which we thought was all set,” Schimminger added.

Spokesmen for Heastie and Flanagan had no comments Tuesday, and the two legislative leaders were not revealing their intentions for the May 25 control board meeting and the $485 million request by Cuomo’s economic development agency for the RiverBend project.

Union officials whose members work on the SolarCity project at RiverBend said paychecks will be on time this week.

“They’ll be fine this week,” said Paul Brown, president of the Buffalo Building & Construction Trades Council.

Brown decried the latest swirl of critical attention toward the Buffalo Billion project, prompted by news of Bharara’s investigation, saying he believes it threatens to diminish the good work taking place in the region.

“I don’t get why people want to be negative all the time,” Brown said. “That Preet Bharara guy, he can’t find anything wrong that the governor did.”

The union leader also said the situation in which nearly 200 workers were laid off during a funding shortfall problem involving the state was blown out of proportion.

“Nobody, of all those workers, actually missed a paycheck,” Brown said, adding that contractors and subcontractors had covered payrolls from cash reserves and credit lines.

In Manhattan on Tuesday afternoon, Cuomo was asked repeatedly by reporters about the investigation of the Buffalo Billion and other projects.

Cuomo said that if the control board acts next week, then his new outside lawyer, Bart Schwartz, will separately review and approve specific payments that are made by Fort Schuyler Management Corp., the not-for-profit entity created by the state university through which money flows from Albany to the companies working on the SolarCity project.

“I want people to have total confidence and trust in the integrity of this government,” Cuomo said, adding that New Yorkers should “know that we take any allegation very seriously. We’re not getting defensive.”

“The U.S. Attorney started an investigation for whatever reason,” Cuomo said.

Cuomo said he, as New York attorney general before becoming governor in 2011, started many probes. He noted that the “overwhelming majority of investigations I started never led to a case,” but the probes needed to be commenced because information about possible wrongdoing was brought to his office.

“It does not mean something bad happened,” he said of inquiries made by prosecutors. “It means you have gotten a tip of some information that merits looking into, and that is a good thing.”

In a state with a $156 billion budget and more than 100,000 state workers, Cuomo said it is “unrealistic to say nothing bad is ever going to happen.”

“Some people have bad intentions. Some people, frankly, are stupid and things will happen,” he said of people who engage in wrongdoing. He added: “My guarantee is I will do everything I can to maintain the integrity of this state.”

Buffalo News Staff Reporter Stephen T. Watson contributed to this story. email: tprecious@buffnews.com