If there were any doubts about tensions hovering over Albany this budget season, Gov. Andrew M. Cuomo’s foray to Buffalo confirmed it all.
Two hundred and eighty miles west of deliberations in the Capitol, the governor’s pointed criticism of Democratic and Republican legislators underscores a standoff that Cuomo says threatens his $500 million economic development proposal for Western New York.
Democratic Assemblyman Robin L. Schimminger came under special criticism from the governor.
Cuomo also singled out Republican Sens. Michael H. Ranzenhofer and Patrick M. Gallivan, as well as Democratic Assemblyman Sean M. Ryan.
But Schimminger said he is committed to Cuomo’s proposal aimed at jump starting mega-projects like Metro Rail extension or Outer Harbor development.
Ranzenhofer said Cuomo may be picking a fight that doesn’t exist and doesn’t believe the second round is threatened.
And Ryan did not want to comment on the criticism.
At least three, though, said that more Legislature oversight is need, given the federal indictments that followed the last round of Buffalo Billion spending.
Schimminger acknowledged the governor’s assessment of a “50-50” chance of legislature approval for the “Buffalo Billion Squared” in the budget process, but blamed that precarious position on legal problems dogging from the original program.
“Given the scandal surrounding the Buffalo Billion that reaches into the highest levels of the Governor’s Office and the failure of highly touted economic development projects in other areas of the state,” Schimminger said, “the Legislature would be negligent if it failed to at least take a close look at the latest project to spend hundreds of millions of taxpayer dollars.”
He also questioned the lump sum of Cuomo’s proposal rather than putting various projects in the budget – the traditional process.
“The lump becomes a target,” Schimminger said of criticism coming from legislators outside the area. “The 20 to 24 specific proposals would become less of a target.”
Cuomo blames questions about the fate of his plan on legislators more interested in the “old way” of attaching their name to pork barrel projects than embracing a continuing state role in fostering economic development in Western New York.
“I will stop the money before allowing it to be distributed as member items, because in my opinion, it’s a waste of money,” he said Monday in Buffalo. “If they don’t want the Buffalo Billion, I will spend half of my remaining life in Buffalo talking to constituents and explaining how they did not fight for their constituents and their residents. That I can promise you.”
Some legislators view the governor’s warning as “fightin’ words.”
“Anyone who questions him is attacked,” said Schimminger, a Kenmore Democrat. “It’s the modus operandi.”
Ranzenhofer, the Amherst Republican, remains puzzled over the governor’s comments and opposes the “old way,” too.
“What’s good for Buffalo and Western New York is good for all of us, no matter what political subdivision we come from,” he said. “And I don’t know why the governor made those comments, at least with regard to me. I’m very much opposed to pork barrel appropriations.”
But several senators and assemblymen, especially from downstate, have raised questions about continuing a Buffalo Billion program that also led to indictments for bid rigging charges from Manhattan U.S. Attorney Preet Bharara.
Some legislators — especially from the New York City area — promise intense scrutiny of the latest proposal, though nobody has yet said they will vote against it.
“The elephant in the room is what happened last time,” Ranzenhofer acknowledged. “I certainly would make changes to prevent what happened last time.”
Gallivan, an Elma Republican, agreed it’s hard to overlook the attention Bharara’s indictments have focused on the program. While he supports the concept and projects Cuomo has proposed, he believes the Legislature should more fully embrace its responsibility to ask questions.
“The Legislature, for the past several years, has given the governor a lot of leeway,” Gallivan said. “I think the Legislature should ask more questions and exert more of a role over the expenditure of state money. That is by no means pork barrel.”
He also said Schimminger raises a “fair question” about how Cuomo submits the program as a package.
“Only in the past six years has it evolved into that, and perhaps it shouldn’t have,” he said.
Ranzenhofer said more oversight powers for the state comptroller in such programs might ensure fewer problems, but he has no objection to Cuomo’s process of regional economic development councils identifying local projects. He also dismisses the governor’s assessment of the Buffalo Billion Squared as in trouble.
“I’m much more optimistic than the governor,” Ranzenhofer said, “and it has a much better chance than 50-50.”
Schimminger sounded the loudest response to Cuomo’s statements. He noted that Cuomo has not “touted” Buffalo Billion Squared in any of his other five regional State of the State speeches, only in Buffalo. And he said the Legislature should assume a more active role in the program, even if as “another set of eyes and ears.”
Controversy over the role of Cuomo’s regional economic development councils prompted a separate blast from state Republican Chairman Edward F. Cox. He called Cuomo’s recent suggestion that he would shut down the regional councils over calls for transparency “evidence of his insatiable quest for power and control amid a corrupt, rudderless administration.”
“The governor’s entire economic development program is corrupt or failing,” Cox said. “Whether it’s his renaming the failed ‘Start-Up NY’ program, the collapsing deals in Rochester, Syracuse, Utica and Albany or the corrupt Buffalo Billion that led to eight members of his inner circle being indicted on bribery, extortion and bid rigging, his policies have failed New Yorkers.”