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Schimminger’s inability to understand jobs data touched off needless bashing

A report in The News last week explains the discrepancy between job claims made in a report on the Start-Up NY program and skepticism of those figures publicly leveled in a hearing of the Assembly Standing Committee on Economic Development, Job Creation, Commerce and Industry.

What it doesn’t explain is why Assemblyman Robin Schimminger, the Kenmore Democrat who chairs the committee, didn’t know what he was talking about before he and his panel raked Howard Zemsky over the coals for two hours. Unawareness is the charitable explanation. The other is that Schimminger was grandstanding. Neither is becoming.

Claiming “obfuscation” in a required annual report by the Cuomo administration, Schimminger convened a hearing four months earlier than usual. He was making a serious allegation, one that needed to be based on facts. That it wasn’t became clear in a Politifact report in The News.

The problem wasn’t obfuscation or anything like it. The problem was Schimminger. The Assembly’s leading elected expert on economic development apparently didn’t understand a fundamental, if unusual, fact about the rules of these reports.

Thus, Schimminger and committee members wasted public time and resources in grilling Zemsky, the Buffalo developer who is the head of Empire State Development Corp., the agency that leads New York’s economic development efforts. They all but accused Zemsky of perpetrating a fraud on the public when, in fact, there was no fraud. Not beyond the committee’s understanding of its own competence, anyway.

The conflict was based on the admittedly arcane rules governing job accounting. An average New Yorker would be forgiven for confusion over them, but even then would be duty bound to get the facts straight before leveling accusations in a high-profile setting. And Schimminger, of course, is not an average New Yorker. He’s the chairman of the Assembly’s committee on jobs.

The problem was in understanding the difference between “net new jobs” and the number of jobs created in any given year. The former has a narrow definition. It must be a full-time job that did not exist before the company joined the program and it has to have been filled for more than six months.

The other category includes jobs created at any point during the calendar year. No six-month requirement applies, so, unlike net new jobs, any position filled in the second half of the year was counted under this category in the ESD report.

Confusion over these numbers is what accounted for Schimminger’s claims of overcounting. In that, he was accusing Zemsky and ESD of deceiving the public over the performance of Start-Up NY, a program that provides generous tax benefits to companies that start or expand in connection with one of the state’s public universities and some private ones.

Zemsky, whose salary at ESD is $1 a year, is a successful developer but unused to fast-and-loose rules of New York politics. The hearing was an eye-opener to him, but he stuck to his guns, refusing to accept Schimminger’s allegation of duplicate or incorrect job numbers. He was right.

We hope it’s now become an eye-opener to Schimminger, Raymond Walter, R-Amherst, and other committee inquisitors who didn’t know what they were talking about when they brandished information they didn’t understand. They have legitimate oversight obligations, but they have to get it right. Rescuing the state’s economy, which the Senate and Assembly helped to wreck, is a difficult enough job without legislators making it worse.

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