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Editorial: Changes can't be allowed to compromise goal of Buffalo Billion II

Call this progress. Whether it is sufficient is uncertain, and it’s possible there will need to be compromise by the Cuomo administration, but the State Legislature, after an uncomfortable period of resistance, has come out foursquare in support of the second round of the Buffalo Billion.

That’s a relief. The initial failure of the Western New York delegation to support a plan to continue the work of restarting the region’s economy made no sense, and smacked of Albany politics. For whatever reason, though, the delegation and the legislative leadership have now declared their support, demanding only transparency as a condition. Given the criminal charges that flowed from the awarding of economic development contracts, that’s not just wise, but necessary.

The remaining question is how to go about creating that transparency without undermining the system that has put Buffalo on an economic path that stretches far out into the future. That needs to be a significant concern. Gov. Andrew M. Cuomo’s system for economic development has proven itself; it needs to be massaged, not mangled.

The genesis of the governor’s success in Buffalo was the creation of Regional Economic Development Councils, whose jobs were to identify how best to invest public money in each region of the state. That informed the decision-making on several projects, including RiverBend, where SolarCity is expected to start production soon in the Western Hemisphere’s largest solar panel manufacturing plant.

As part of its push for transparency – which, it is fair to say, the Legislature has never much liked for itself – the Assembly wants the volunteer members of the regional councils to file public financial disclosures, presumably on the theory that it would dissuade those volunteers from seeking to benefit their own bank accounts.

There has been no suggestion that such criminality has occurred on the councils and the administration warns – probably correctly – that it would drive away many private-sector executives who serve on them and who already sign ethics agreements.

Nevertheless, with federal felony indictments surrounding the RiverBend project, it is important to Buffalo’s future prospects and to all New Yorkers who value their tax dollars to ensure that what the governor and Legislature ultimately agree to is a tight ship. We can’t afford a second scandal.

There should be room for compromise on this issue. Is it too intrusive to ask busy people who volunteer their time to disclose personal financial information? That’s somewhere between possible and likely. But there could be a lesser standard: an enforceable pledge to disclose the information privately to the Legislature or to disclose publicly when a potential conflict of interest arises. It is absolutely appropriate to treat volunteers working to create a stronger state differently from elected officials who control the public purse strings.

Other proposals seem more workable: a searchable database of economic development spending; communication about plans with legislators; and 30 days’ notice before distributing economic development funds.

This is a different day from the one when lawmakers approved the first Buffalo Billion package, but the goal is the same: the economic revival of upstate’s biggest city. What Albany needs is a tight ship capable of navigating to its destination. That doesn’t seem too much to ask.

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