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State’s economic development effort is helping restore enthusiasm in WNY

It’s good that the State Legislature is monitoring economic development efforts in New York State. Hundreds of millions of tax dollars are in play and it’s important for legislators to perform their oversight responsibilities. It would be helpful, though, if they did it with a little perspective on the damage they visited upon the state over the course of generations.

At a hearing Thursday in Albany, the Assembly Committee on Economic Development, Job Creation, Commerce and Industry grilled Howard Zemsky for more than two hours, complaining about job creation numbers, alleged overcounts, tax breaks and more. It was more than a little bizarre.

It’s not that the committee was sticking its nose where it didn’t belong. New Yorkers need the state’s co-equal, sometimes adversarial, branches of government to do their jobs. But here was the committee, led by a Western New Yorker – Assemblyman Robin Schimminger, D-Kenmore – taking a verbal baseball bat to another Western New Yorker – Howard Zemsky, head of the Empire State Development Corp. – over the only serious effort ever made to revitalize the depressed economies of upstate New York, Western New York in particular.

The theory of these inquisitors, who included Assemblyman Raymond Walter, R-Amherst, seems to be that the administration of Gov. Andrew M. Cuomo should be able to undo decades of mismanagement in a matter of a few years. Not enough jobs have been created, they said. Some of the programs aren’t doing the job for which they were created, they complained.

Not every facet of every program is going to be successful. That’s why the governor has created such a broad economic development effort. The evidence of that effort’s value is all around us. Just two of the projects supported by the state – the Medical Campus and the solar panel factory going up at RiverBend – are bringing thousands of new jobs to Western New York.

It’s important to view these efforts in context, which includes what Walter referred to as “the wreckage behind us.” It’s strewn all over New York’s economic landscape, and the Legislature was complicit in the destruction. Consider:

• The cumulative tax burden in New York is higher than any other state. Much of that is due to local and school property taxes, which are bloated by unfunded state mandates that the Legislature cheerfully imposed. That kills economic development.

• The state’s Taylor Law tilts heavily in favor of public unions, giving them tremendous political clout, often exercised at the expense of taxpayers. Salaries, work rules and retirement benefits are all high and, under the constraints of the labor statute, taxpayers have little chance to moderate them. Yet lawmakers from both parties refuse to touch that law, which drives up public costs and discourages business investment.

• Similarly, the Legislature refuses to budge on the Scaffold Law, a punitive statute that automatically presumes contractors to be responsible when a worker falls from a height. Under its influence, contractors have no right in New York to mount a legal defense, regardless of how an employee might have contributed to his own injury. Around the country, only New York clings to this expensive, unjust practice. It sends insurance costs through the roof, which balloons the costs of construction and makes New York a place to avoid for many businesses.

There’s more, but you get the idea. It’s a crime scene at which virtually all of Albany has left its fingerprints: Democrats and Republicans, governors and legislators are guilty of giving away the goods in a store stocked by taxpayers.

That’s a primary reason that programs such as Start-Up NY and the Buffalo Billion, both launched by the Cuomo administration, have been necessary. It’s unfortunate, but the fact is that government incentives are needed to undo some of the damage caused by reckless government policies.

So, it’s all right for the committee to question Zemsky about the performance of Start-Up NY, which eliminates most state taxes for companies that locate or expand in zones mainly associated with the State University of New York. He’s the man in charge, after all, even if this successful Buffalo developer is voluntarily working for only $1 a year.

Lawmakers were unimpressed that the program has produced only 408 jobs despite costs that include a $50 million marketing program. Their concern might be more credible had their efforts not helped to drive upstate into the economic ditch but regardless, this will require some patience.

Zemsky believes it will be a long-term success, and that’s important. His opinion matters. What is more, New York needs to be in this at least as much for the long term as it does for the instant gratification of immediate jobs, such as those involved in constructing and then staffing the RiverBend project in South Buffalo, part of the Buffalo Billion program.

Schimminger, his committee and other state officials should continue to monitor the state’s economic development efforts, but they need to do it in a way that builds on the great work of the past few years – not in a way that squelches the growth of a new Buffalo.

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