It’s one thing for legislators from other parts of the state to respond coolly to Gov. Andrew M. Cuomo’s plan to expand upon the success of the Buffalo Billion. They believe they have little to gain and, more to the point, wouldn’t mind their own slug of money from Albany.
But when Western New York’s own legislators don’t speak up for a creative program that stands to secure the transformation of the Western New York economy, their constituents have a right to ask who they’re really representing. It’s beyond bizarre.
Think about it. A governor with a track record for turning around this long-neglected city publicly offers to direct another half-billion dollars to a well-considered economic development program and local legislators … yawn. Cuomo says he puts the program’s chances of passing at only 50-50. Failure could undermine Buffalo’s revival.
Western New York’s legislators should be beating the drum for this program and the hundreds of thousands of constituents it will benefit. Its initial phase has made a dramatic difference in Western New York, when every previous effort fell flat. Yet, lawmakers are silent. Why is that?
Are they in the thrall of downstate legislators who have no interest in what happens to Buffalo – or, at least, who don’t understand that they have an interest? Are they bending to the whim of their legislative leaders, who are on the outs with Cuomo? Are they angry because Cuomo didn’t agree to the $20,000, no-strings-attached raises they wanted in December?
Any of those is possible, but Cuomo also thinks it’s as simple and as appalling as greedy self-interest. Legislators, he says, want to return to the bad old system of member items – more accurately known as pork barrel spending – in which they got a chunk of taxpayer money to dole out as they saw fit. In that, it was a legal slush fund that helped to ensure their re-elections, discouraged challenges and shored up their egos.
But here’s what lawmakers need to ask of themselves and to explain to their constituents: What good did that system ever do? Yes, some worthy efforts were funded, but in a way that was designed to evade accountability and that never produced the kind of focused effect that the Buffalo Billion has had. A dozen shotguns will never have the impact of a well-aimed missile.
If that’s the goal of these Assembly members and senators, then the hard fact is that they are selling their constituents down the river. Albany’s high-tech economy was delivered only after years of continual state nourishment, and it has paid off.
Without focused follow-up in Buffalo, the huge potential of the initial billion-dollar investment may be squandered. Lawmakers’ lust for the instant gratification offered by member items is as unseemly as it is ineffective.
Cuomo’s plan – developed with the input of Buffalo’s Howard Zemsky, head of Empire State Development Corp. – aims at maximizing the money that has already been spent to reignite the Western New York economy. Among its many targets are an extension of Metro Rail north to Amherst and slightly south to the DL&W railroad terminal, which would be renovated. It would also expand Buffalo’s renewal into the East Side; create the Buffalo Blueway to provide access to the city’s waterways; continue funding for the 43North business competition; help to free land in Niagara Falls for development; and expand the University at Buffalo Medical School by 25 percent.
This follow-up plan – Buffalo Billion Squared, Cuomo calls it – has been broadly praised by the Buffalo business community, a natural constituency for Assemblyman Robin Schimminger, D-Kenmore, who is chairman of the Assembly Economic Development, Job Creation, Commerce and Industry Committee. It’s also a close fit for Sen. Patrick Gallivan, R-Elma, a former Erie County sheriff who chairs that chamber’s Crime Victims, Crime and Correction Committee and who surely grasps the connection between rising opportunity and declining crime.
It’s time for all of these putative representatives to declare whose interests they are going to serve. They can’t be for and against their constituents at the same time. They need to lead on this issue and they need to start now.