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Editorial: Legislators should give up their wish to dole out state’s development cash

State lawmakers who grilled Howard Zemsky this week about the Cuomo administration’s economic development strategy made half a point in their demands for transparency in spending, but they lose the argument when they push to get their own sticky fingers on the money that is helping to transform upstate.

No one can argue with transparency. Even though Zemsky, the Buffalo developer who heads Empire State Development Corp., defends the overall record of his operation, the fact is that some expensive and high-profile projects, including one associated with the Buffalo Billion, have drawn criminal indictments. That’s deadly serious in a notoriously corrupt state government and lawmakers would be failing in their duties if they ignored it.

But legislators also seem to want to go back to the bad old days of member items – aka pork barrel spending – in which they could get their paws on millions of dollars to distribute as they saw fit. That those dollars usually went to deserving programs does nothing to justify a system that lacked controls and that watered down the impact that could have been achieved if the efforts had been strategically focused.

That’s what the Buffalo Billion is doing. It has focused the state’s efforts – and its dollars – to produce a tremendous initial bang in Buffalo. And it hasn’t even fully detonated yet. That will happen as the SolarCity plant in South Buffalo begins hiring this year and starts ramping up production of solar panels.

Not satisfied with that – or perhaps covetous of it – legislators want to influence how that money is spent. That’s about their electoral self-interest, not what most benefits their constituents. Lawmakers miss the days when they could distribute cash to local causes, winning the gratitude of influential community members and further easing their paths to re-election.

It was a terrible system before and it would be terrible again. Under Gov. Andrew M. Cuomo, economic development has been focused through the lenses of the Regional Economic Development Councils that he created. Under its influence in Western New York, the impact has already been transformative. In addition to SolarCity, the money has funded the IBM Buffalo Innovation Center, the Buffalo Medical Innovation and Commercialization Hub, Buffalo Manufacturing Works and the 43North business competition, among other efforts.

Did anything remotely like that happen under a previous governor or Legislature? It did not. Yet legislators are salivating over the opportunity to direct how to spend additional economic development dollars, including those in Cuomo’s proposed $500 million addendum to the Buffalo Billion.

Legislators should confine themselves to ensuring that contracts and related matters are handled ethically and legally and to monitoring the effectiveness of these projects. Even that has to be reasonable, though.

When one lawmaker criticized the Start-Up NY program – whose effectiveness has, in fact, been muted – he ignored a critical fact: The cost to the state was virtually zero. The program eliminates taxes for 10 years to companies that meet its requirements, but those are taxes the state wasn’t getting, anyway. The program could do better, and the state is working on that, but it’s a valid effort.

This is shaping up as a challenging year for focused economic development. Some of that is natural and even important. But legislators also need to be focused – on results and on the needs of their communities. To do that, they should keep their hands out of the gears.

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