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Editorial: Upstate, downstate divide is real and severe

Editorial: Upstate, downstate divide is real and severe

The majority party of each house have a legitimate local obligation to their own voters to enact policies that help even the playing field
Editorial: Upstate, downstate divide is real and severe
The economic disparity between upstate and downstate has become an increasingly volatile political issue in New York.
Photographer: nysenate.gov

If the Republicans retain control of the state Senate in Tuesday’s election, upstate New York is saved.

If Democrats take control of the Senate, as well as retain control of the Assembly and the governorship, we’re screwed.

That’s one conclusion drawn by many people familiar with New York state politics.

It was one of the big arguments made by Republican Senate candidates who appeared before our editorial board last month during meetings to discuss our endorsements.

“Endorse me and we’ll retain some influence in state government. Endorse my Democratic opponent and you’ll be giving away everything we might get to New York City.”

One Republican candidate even whipped out a card she had in her purse that showed the location of all the Democrat-controlled state Senate seats, a large cluster over Long Island and New York City, with just a few others spritzed across the rest of the state.

Democratic candidates made the same type of argument as Republicans: “I’ll have a seat at the table if Democrats win the Senate and therefore more influence over what happens. A Republican will be shut out of the entire process.”

Republican supporters hearken back to the Joe Bruno days, when the powerful Republican head of the Senate majority from Rensselaer County could wave his magic wand and get money and programs for our region that we otherwise wouldn’t be able to get. Witness the number of buildings named after Bruno as proof of our undying gratitude to the Grand Old Party.

There’s certainly some fear that upstate will lose all its influence if Democrats control the Legislature and the governorship. If you were in the party that was in control, wouldn’t you try to get as much for your constituents as you could?

But while certainly some of those fears are rooted in reality of politics, history shows us that even with Republicans serving as a check on the governor and Assembly, they didn’t exactly protect state residents from evil liberal polices.

Some fear, for instance, that state spending will rise out of control with all Democrats in charge. The last time Dems were in control, state taxes and fees rose $14 billion, Republicans say.

But having Republicans running the Senate for the better part of 20 years hasn’t been much of a stop-gap so far. 

Take overall state spending. In 1997-1998, the state budget was $77.8 billion. Today, it’s $168 billion.

Or consider state education spending. From 2007-18 to 2014-15, New York’s per-pupil spending increased 24 percent. Since 1998, it’s risen from just under $10,000 per student to over $21,000. Republicans in the Senate have hardly been holding the reins on spending, or on the complementary tax increases.

Also, while it’s likely Democrats would have an easier time passing such progressive reforms as pro-choice legislation, stricter gun control, the Child Victims Act and anti-corruption reform, having Republicans control the Senate is no guarantee the state will be shielded from overly progressive policies.

A Republican Senate was in power when the state passed the SAFE Act, and when New York became only the seventh state in the country at the time to legalize same-sex marriage, both generally elements of a more liberal approach to government. 

Perhaps the biggest illusion of how Republicans have saved upstate from the big New York City interests is the existing divide between the upstate and downstate economies.

A report issued last month by the Empire Center for Public Policy illustrated just how much New York City and the downstate region has thrived in the last 10 years vs. upstate.

The report concluded that while New York City has recovered nicely from the 2008 national economic recession, upstate has largely lagged behind or not recovered at all.

Since 2010, the report found, New York City has enjoyed the highest rate of private job growth in the state, followed by Long Island and the lower Hudson Valley.

Upstate New York has gained private-sector jobs at less than one-third the downstate rate -- about 6.3 percent compared to 21.2 percent for downstate.

Since 2010, the state has gained 1.1 million private-sector jobs. Of that, the 12-county downstate region — New York City, Long Island and the Lower Hudson Valley — accounted for 985,000 jobs, or 88 percent of the state total, the report stated.

That means it doesn’t matter which political party holds sway over the Legislature, Republicans or Democrats. The upstate-downstate divide is real and severe, and it doesn’t look like it’s going to get much better unless lawmakers and the governor look beyond party and start representing the entire state.

Having a weak upstate actually hurts downstate. You might not know it by those employment numbers, but it does.

For instance, there’s a huge tax discrepancy between upstate and downstate.

According to a 2011 study by the Rockefeller Institute (admittedly a bit aged), New York City contributed more than 45 percent of the state’s taxes and other revenues, but only received 40 percent of the money the state passed out. Upstate counties (not including the Capital Region) contributed 24 percent of the state’s taxes and revenues but received 35 percent of the state money, the report found.

Assuming those percentages hold today — or perhaps that the gap has increased as the downstate economy recovered and the upstate economy stagnated — that means the weaker the upstate economy is, the more downstate taxpayers have to subsidize their fellow New Yorkers living upstate.

Citizens and their representatives in state government must recognize that it actually benefits downstate residents if upstate does better.

That means downstate lawmakers and whoever is in the majority party of each house have a legitimate local obligation to their own voters to enact policies that help even the playing field between upstate and downstate.

It means supporting legislation and policies that will lift the entire state, not just one end of it.

It means working to lower state taxes and fees — income taxes, property taxes, fuel taxes, etc. — to reduce the financial burden on upstate property owners and income earners.

It means reducing or eliminating overly oppressive regulations on businesses that hurt the entire state economy, not just upstaters.

It means working to attract companies and jobs to all areas of the state so that the residents all over have more jobs, so they can pay more income taxes, so they can support a greater percentage of the state budget, so they can reduce the downstate tax burden and support more downstate programs like mass transit and upgrades to downstate bridges, roads and underground infrastructure.

Downstate lawmakers owe it to their own constituents, their own voters, to look beyond their municipal borders to improve the economic fortunes of the entire state.

Whichever candidates pledge to do that are the candidates all New Yorkers want to elect on Tuesday.

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