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Rod Watson: Amazon bid spotlights state’s high taxes, but where’s the return?

In the race to see who can shell out the most to lure an Amazon headquarters – with 50,000 new jobs being dangled – New York’s scolds wasted little time dredging up a perennial obstacle: the state’s high taxes.

But no one ever raises a corollary point when lambasting New York’s tax rates: What are we getting for all of those taxpayer dollars? After all, you get what you pay for, right?

Well, maybe ... maybe not. But this seems a good time to ask.

Sure enough, according to, New York ranks first with a total tax burden – including property, income and sales taxes – of 12.94 percent. The Tax Foundation and come to the same conclusion, ranking New York No. 1.

Theoretically, then, New York should be No. 1, or at least close to the top, in services provided to taxpayers.

It could cost $1 billion just to get in the running for Amazon's HQ2

But not when it comes to the roads, bridges, dams, airports and other infrastructure that support daily life and commerce. The American Society of Civil Engineers 2015 report gives the state only a C-minus overall – including a D-plus for bridges and D-minus for roads.

Clearly, that’s not where the money is going.

Worker training for a new economy? On’s 2017 rankings of the top states for business, New York ranks only 39th in terms of the quality, availability and productivity of the workforce. Since this ranking looks at things from a business owner’s perspective, New York’s high rate of union membership – it’s No. 1 at 24.7 percent, according to the Bureau of Labor Statistics – could be working against it. But still, 39th?

What about the more fundamental "quality of life" category – which takes in everything from parks and other attractions to crime rates, inclusiveness and health care? New York, for all its spending, ranks only 19th in providing residents the kind of place they enjoy living in. The state makes the top 10 only in technology and innovation, education and access to capital. That wasn’t nearly enough to lift it out of 38th place overall on CNBC’s tote board.

Things don’t look much better over at U.S. News & World Report, which looked at some 60 metrics and ended up ranking New York 17th in terms of "how well states are performing for their citizens." Here, New York made the top 10 only in the "crime and corrections" category, in which states scored better the lower their crime rates and the lower their rates of incarceration.

Can Buffalo compete with big cities for Amazon?

New York's worst score – 44th – was in "providing opportunities for all their citizens." U.S. News looked at income inequality, poverty rates, median housing prices compared to median incomes, and gaps in education and employment between whites and Asians compared to other minorities and concluded that for all our progressive rhetoric, we’re not doing a very good job of closing the gaps despite spending lots of money.

And it’s not that New York is more poor than other states. In terms of poverty rates, ranks it right in the middle of the pack at 24th.

For a tax-and-spend liberal like me, this is all very disconcerting. I may have to move to a "red" state just so I can afford to help the poor.

On the other hand, maybe there’s a silver lining here for those who really want to attract Amazon. When it comes to spending versus results, we obviously don’t know what we’re doing – which could make us the perfect target for a company that does.

Sean Kirst's open letter to Jeff Bezos: Take a look at Buffalo's Central Terminal


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