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Editorial: Legislators finally express support for Buffalo Billion, but still want to mess with its success

It is mainly good news – perhaps – that state legislators are finally showing support for Gov. Andrew M. Cuomo’s second phase of the Buffalo Billion.

After Cuomo expressed concern about the program’s chances of approval, lawmakers now say that, yes, of course they support the spending. But, as we have noted previously, lawmakers also have to agree to keep their fingers out of the pie.

That’s not what’s happening. Legislators, even including Sen. Catharine Young, R-Olean, chairwoman of the Finance Committee, want to direct how the money is spent on the theory that they know best about their communities. What we suspect they mean is that they want to dole out the money as they see fit and claim political credit. It’s never worked before on the macro scale and it won’t work now.

It used to be that, as part of the annual budgeting process, legislators got a slug of public money that they could distribute in their districts as they saw fit. Appropriately known as “pork barrel spending,” there was no oversight and no formal accountability. Most lawmakers doled out the slush fund to deserving organizations, but that didn’t justify the loosey-goosey system or deliver results that transformed communities.

The Buffalo Billion demonstrably has done that. It consolidated public money and focused government effort in a successful effort to change the trajectory of this long-struggling city. And now lawmakers want to change a system that works? Are they crazy?

Under Cuomo, the state has directed efforts through regional economic development councils that have, for the most part, operated professionally and creatively. That’s how Buffalo got the RiverBend project, soon to be home to the largest solar panel manufacturing plant in the Western Hemisphere.

That’s how the follow-up plan needs to proceed, as well. Legislators’ ideas should be welcomed and considered, but the $500 million Cuomo wants to send to the region should be directed in a way that maximizes its impact on the region and builds on the success of the original billion. That won’t happen if legislators muscle in.

That’s not to say that lawmakers don’t have an important role to play. The criminal charges that have flowed from the way contracts were let for the initial program justify – and require – a legislative response.

Federal indictments against government and business leaders relating to the RiverBend project clearly suggest that, even after the criminal convictions of former leaders of the Assembly and Senate, corruption remains firmly embedded in the state’s political culture. It’s depressing, but true.

Clearly, members of the Legislature have a compelling interest in ensuring that any money approved is spent legally and ethically. But they can’t work to ensure that the program is drained of political corruption while setting about corrupting its valuable public purpose.

Buffalo needs this program. It needs the state support but, more than that, it needs the effort to be focused on a goal that goes beyond polishing legislators’ resumes.
Voters should take note. If lawmakers say they are for this program only as long as they can control its direction, they’re working to deceive. This is too important to allow that to happen.

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