Editorial: Game show a bad way to spend tax money

State needs a more efficient, effective way to allocate resources
Lt. Gov. Kathy Hochul awards the Capital Region $67 million in state funding at the REDC Awards in Albany Tuesday morning.
Lt. Gov. Kathy Hochul awards the Capital Region $67 million in state funding at the REDC Awards in Albany Tuesday morning.

If you want to be reminded how ridiculously wasteful and arbitrary the state’s economic development efforts are, look no further than the list of projects that received state money during New York’s annual economic funding announcement.

On Tuesday, Lt. Gov. Kathy Hochul played the role of Pat Sajak in the state’s $763 million game of Wheel of Fortune, in which local governments and private companies spun the wheel for the chance to win big prizes from New York’s taxpayers.

In all, it was nearly a billion dollars of taxpayer money for anything goes, with no rhyme or reason to the award process other than the contestants putting together the most impressive applications and spinning the wheel.

That might be, to some, the fairest way to award the money. Make them earn it. 

That’s great for a game show.

But it’s really no way to run a government and to allocate the hard-earned money of the state’s taxpayers.

Yes, it’s great that Schenectady got $5 million for the pump station in the Stockade. It’s a worthy, necessary project

So, too, we assume, was the $1 million that Albany got to process biosolids (a nice way of saying processed sewer sludge). And We’re sure Sharon Springs needed $1 million for its water system.

All projects worthy of state taxpayer support.

But what about the losers in this game of chance? What about the many villages and towns with equally aging sewer and water infrastructures in need of repair and replacement? What about other communities trying to extend the life of their landfills by finding alternative ways to get rid of their waste?

For every community walking away with a big prize, there are dozens of others who don’t even get Turtle Wax and a version of the home game.

State resources should be given to those in the greatest need and whose infrastructure issues pose the greatest threat to public health and the environment.  Surely this money is needed. But if the goal of this grant program is economic development, does a biosludge plant that employs a handful of workers really qualify?

Other money from the big prize pool that didn’t go to communities with aging pipes went to private companies in the name of economic development.

Doesn’t the state already have a way to distribute grants, loan and tax breaks to private businesses for the purpose of creating jobs and tax base? Isn’t that what we have industrial development agencies and authorities for?

And then there were prizes awarded for projects that don’t seem to fall under either infrastructure or economic development.

The Saratoga Performing Arts Center isn’t a government agency, and it’s not about to go bankrupt. So why does it get $1.7 million state tax money for enhanced marketing efforts, classrooms and bathroom upgrades?

Is the Times Union Center in Albany really in dire need of nearly $1 million in state money for upgrades after finishing 2017 with a $1.3 million operational profit? 

And what about all this money awarded to colleges? Private colleges have tuition and endowments as revenue sources, and public colleges have tuition and taxes.

That $5 million awarded to SUNY Cobleskill for vertical greenhouses could fix a lot of sewer pipes. Bard College in Dutchess County has a $267 million endowment, but nonetheless got $300,000  to renovate an on-campus mansion. Yeah, that’s right. A frickin’ mansion.

These are just a few of the examples of the randomness and the wastefulness of this whole enterprise. Go through the list yourself and pick out your own examples.

This competition for state money under the guise of economic development is no more fair and rational than grabbing the wheel and giving it a whirl. 

The awards are not made as part of any comprehensive, cooperative plan to revitalize communities and local economies. 

The lieutenant governor might as well have been throwing cash off a fire truck during the local 4th of July parade.

State tax money should be awarded based on need, cost and impact on communities through thorough, transparent review by experts in state agencies that are set up to evaluate such proposals. 

Economic development money should be awarded based on job creation and tax revenue, not who submits the glossiest portfolio.

As with game shows, the winners go away happy and the losers go away wondering what might have been.

And all the rest of us are left with is a hollow feeling that we spent a lot of money on a job not quite done well enough.

Categories: Editorial, Opinion

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