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Editorial: RiverBend workers shouldn’t pay the price for state’s foot-dragging on payments

And, again, New York can’t find a way to pay RiverBend construction workers on time. For the second time this year, the state is behind on compensating the contractors who are building the gigantic SolarCity factory in South Buffalo.

There is an explanation, but it’s not an excuse.

This time, at least, no workers are walking off the job. But the state’s problems shouldn’t be visited on the workers who are putting together the state-of-the-art plant that has the capacity to remake the Western New York economy.

The problem, when it happened in February, was the state’s payment review process, which is structured to ensure that public money is spent appropriately. That’s important, but the process is anything but efficient, leading to a long delay last winter. Without being paid for their work, more than 110 workers walked away.

Now, it’s happening again and the delay is exacerbated by the aftershocks of recent indictments related to the RiverBend project, among others. With felony charges filed against Joseph Percoco, a top aide to Gov. Andrew M. Cuomo, and Buffalo contractor Louis P. Ciminelli, among others, state officials are being especially careful about approving payments related to the project, according to Howard Zemsky, head of Empire State Development.

That’s understandable – wise, even. But it’s not an excuse for holding up payments to workers who are putting this plant together. The state had been put on notice about its ponderous process earlier this year, and the charges in the federal corruption case were announced in September. This problem should have been avoidable and, if it wasn’t, it should at least have been made public before now.

Workers and contractors may reason that they hit the jackpot with this substantial project and feel – at this point, anyway – that discretion is better than disruption. It would be a wise approach, given that they will be paid as soon as the state can get its act together. These are golden eggs, even if the goose in question is unreliable in its laying.

Nevertheless, these people have mortgages to pay, mouths to feed and bodies to clothe. Their bills don’t stop coming in because New York is delinquent in its obligations. The delay could cost them in their ability to make payments (running up late fees and affecting their credit ratings) or in interest costs for short-term borrowing.

Regardless of that, the state should be required to pay a penalty for its failure to be prompt, with the proceeds going to the workers whose paychecks are delayed. That would be the right thing to do.

And, of course, now is the time to start planning for the next payments that, in all likelihood, will otherwise be delayed. If the state wasn’t on notice before, it is now. Fix this problem. Pay your bills on time.

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