Assembly Republicans raise important economic development issues

The Buffalo Billion has certainly attracted a ton of attention, from New York to Buffalo and all parts of the state in between. Jim Heaney’s Investigative Post has done outstanding work on the subject and has been leading the way into multiple aspects of that gargantuan project.

The Buffalo Billion, of course, is part of the largesse that is economic development in New York State. The Cuomo administration can be given points for trying to turn around upstate’s stagnant economy, but the effort involves millions and millions of dollars, and not all of it has been well spent or managed. U.S. Attorney Preet Barhara, operating out of Manhattan, is hot on the trail.

This blog has commented on one much-touted but little accomplished state program, StartUp NY. The program, which has been part of the millions of dollars of state economic development spending, is intended to link college campuses to business enterprises to stimulate job creation. Erie Community College is one of the latest to sign on, with an effort to link the College to BlackRock, Inc., an international firm that manages more than $4 trillion in assets. This particular effort involves tying job opportunities for the College’s students into the work of BlackRock within its highly secured gated compound in West Amherst, miles from the nearest ECC campus. BlackRock stands to gain substantial tax breaks on top of the tax breaks they were already awarded to locate in Amherst.

Not only is there little documentation about the particulars of this deal, but the Albany-based StartUp NY program has its own problems. Last year the organization reported that their work created less than one hundred jobs statewide in 2014. We don’t know what they accomplished in 2015. Their annual report, due April 1, 2016, has still not arrived.  Assemblyman Robin Schimminger has repeatedly raised questions about the StartUp NY reports.

When big programs with big budgets come from Albany the action is often fast but the thought process that went into the development of such programs often seems to have been prepared on the fly. Not a good idea, particularly when tens of millions of taxpayer dollars are involved. It is in that spirit that Assembly Republican caucus has entered the fray about the Buffalo Billion and related matters.

The state legislative session is just a couple weeks from wrapping up. The Assembly Republican caucus is small and pretty much never gets to accomplish anything on their collective agenda. But that does not mean that they cannot contribute to the discussion about what is being done with all those millions of dollars in economic development projects.

The Assembly Republicans, locally represented by Assemblyman Ray Walter of Amherst, earlier this week announced the introduction of legislation that is intended to reform the state’s economic development activities. They point out that,“in just this year’s budget, there is an estimated $2.6 billion controlled by the governor.” Their bill is not going anywhere, but the issues raised deserve attention.

The highlights of the Republican bill include:

  • [Creation of] a three-member board to review and approve funding originating from lump sum appropriations worth $1 million or more. … The board would also be required to review the top qualifying entities for projects to ensure there are no conflicts of interest.
  • [R]eforms to the lump sum appropriation budgeting process so conflicts of interest are identified, appropriations are prohibited when such conflicts exist, and require all appropriations to be lined out with specific details provided.
  • Just as legislators’ salaries are withheld when the April 1 budget deadline is missed, … hold the salaries of the governor and appropriate agency commissioners and deputy commissioners when economic development reports fail to meet reporting deadlines.
  • An independent assessment of current programs and what improvements must be made, [particularly concerning tax credits].
  • The pay-to-play nature of state government has gone unaddressed for too long.  Immediate steps must be taken to remove potential conflicts of interests from state-administered programs. For example, appointed members of the Regional Economic Development Councils can help develop proposals, apply for grant money, play a role in the selection process, and donate to political campaigns. … The Minority Conference [bill] will prohibit individuals and their families serving as appointees who distribute discretionary state funds from making political donations to the appointing authority.

It is easy to overlook ideas that are unlikely to be approved but that does not mean that the ideas are not important and deserve attention. These ideas deserve attention.