Editorial: State awards under the guise of economic development

New system designed to supplant old pork-barrel political rewards practice
Gov. Andrew Cuomo speaks at the Regional Economic Development Council announcement Wednesday in Albany.
Gov. Andrew Cuomo speaks at the Regional Economic Development Council announcement Wednesday in Albany.

What do sanitary sewer upgrades in Gloversville, the renovation of the Palace Theatre in Albany and a grain hub in Moreau have in common?

Can’t figure it out? Don’t feel bad. If we didn’t already know the answer, we wouldn’t have been able to think of it either.

The answer is that these are three of the winners in the annual state government sweepstakes that culminated last week in the awarding of $755 million in taxpayer money for dozens of disparate projects all lumped together under the broad umbrella of economic development.

The Regional Economic Development Council contest — which some have likened to “The Hunger Games,” the fictional competition that pits the winners of a lottery in a fight to the death — allows regions of the state to compete for money that they then would presumably use for economic development in their areas.

It was designed, in part, to supplant the old pork-barrel political rewards system of distributing state funds. Under that system, state funding for local projects was based largely on the political affiliation of the area’s legislative representatives and their status on the totem pole of political party leadership. The more influential and powerful the legislator, the more money that would flow to a particular area.

Think about how well off this area was when Glens Falls native Joe Bruno was representing the Saratoga and Rensselaer areas and serving as Senate majority leader.

Under the so-called “member item” system, there was no rhyme or reason for the rewarding of funding for projects. Local constituents put forth projects and the Legislature would announce funding in a way that kept the awards and the dollar amounts secret for months until someone demanded a list.

The new system is more orderly, in that there’s an application process for the entire state and awards are distributed geographically (although some geographic areas make out better than others). And it does take control over the pork away from politically connected legislators. But it puts it in the hands of an office controlled by the governor. Is that better?

And as we see from the variety of projects, there’s no collective rhyme or reason for the selections, just as there wasn’t under the old system.

Many of the projects are a stretch to even say they fall under the category of economic development.

Really, the state awarded $5 million for “construction of facilities to reduce the number of floatable materials the city of Albany sewer system releases into the Hudson River.” That’s the delicate way of describing when raw sewage flows into the river after storms overwhelm the capacity of the collection system.

It’s a worthy expenditure of state money, for sure. Who wants pollutants contaminating the river, right? But exactly how that qualifies under the definition of economic development is beyond us. 

There are many similar sewer projects on the funding list, as well as others that one wouldn’t immediately consider economic development.

There’s a half a million dollars to renovate the Five and Dime in Northville. Is that really going to spur economic development and bring in a ton of jobs?

Hudson Valley Community College is getting $2.9 million to create an advanced manufacturing technology training facility.

While such training might help the economy, that sounds more like the money should be coming from the state university system rather than a pile of taxpayer funds dedicated to economic development.

With so many projects qualifying for funding, one might reasonably ask whether this is just another way of doling out pork.

Others have criticized the system as not being accountable and not producing a corresponding value in terms of jobs and tax revenue for the money the state is spending.

And still others have criticized the wisdom of pitting regions against one another rather than looking at the needs of the individual communities and the viability of individual projects.

If an area needs a sewer upgrade, shouldn’t that decision be based on need, cost and threat to the environment rather than on whether the project happens to be in the Capital District or the Southern Tier?

The winners of the competition will keep their mouths shut, not wanting to look the gift horse in the mouth. And the losers will keep their fingers crossed in hopes that should they continue to participate, they eventually will also get funding.

But if you look at this particular system for distributing state funds, it’s not much better than the one it replaced.

Projects like these should be divided up based on specific categories (education, infrastructure, tourism, environment) and awards should be based on the degree of need and funding available.

Take the competition out of it. Take the politics out of it.

Let the directors in each state department make the decisions and force them to provide a full and transparent justification for each award.

When you look at it closely, New York’s Hunger Games should leave taxpayers hungering for a better way.

Categories: Editorial, Opinion

Leave a Reply