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Governor’s Santa act needs some work

December 12, 2014
Editorial , Lake Placid News

Christmas comes early with Santa Cuomo. The governor likes to give out gifts a couple of weeks before the actual holiday, through the Regional Economic Development Council process.

Christmas was scheduled for Wednesday, but because of a snowstorm has been postponed to noon Thursday. Local officials from all over New York made their wish lists earlier this year, naming projects in their home regions they want the taxpayers to help pay for. On Thursday in Albany, they gathered to find out who got what.

Although we're making light of this process somewhat, it is a big deal - and an improvement in many ways over what existed before. It replaced a variety of grants from state agencies as well as "member items," lawmakers' own earmarks that they distributed as they saw fit. In many cases, such grants were abused, rewarding politicians' allies, or the money wasted, not going where it would do the most good.

Gov. Andrew Cuomo funneled those grants into a contest between 10 Empire State Development regions. In each region he appoints a council of local leaders - from various levels of government as well as business, labor, college and nonprofit groups - and they make each year's wish list. They are not paid for this work.

Then a commission of state officials reviews those 10 wish lists and decides how to distribute a pool of money budgeted for this purpose. This year it's $220 million: $150 million in capital funds and $70 million in tax credits.

This process is good for big-picture vision, and it makes things simpler for grant applicants: A village sewer project, a nonprofit theater renovation and a business expansion can now be sought using a single application.

The REDC process also, thankfully, pried member items out of the fingers of legislators who used them as re-election campaign tools.

On the downside, Gov. Cuomo has taken that power for himself and his own re-election campaign. Exhibit A of this is obvious: He takes credit for it all. He presides over the award ceremony, poses for pictures with the winners and makes sure all the announcements come from him. Last year, after Saranac Lake received $7 million for two major hotel projects, he appeared at a local celebration and was greeted by the mayor as "Santa Claus." He upstaged the applicants and regional council members who had worked on those grants.

How much does he actually, personally weigh in on the grant awards? Maybe a great deal, maybe very little. The public doesn't know because the final decision-making process is hidden.

It's noteworthy, though, that he's consolidated lawmakers' grant-making power into the executive branch, which he runs. That's quite a power grab.

Furthermore, now we learn that he uses this network he's created to solicit campaign donations. On Tuesday, Capital NY's Jimmy Vielkind described how Gov. Cuomo mingles with REDC members and grant applicants in settings like cocktail parties, and how they contribute to his campaign. Capital NY found that "council members and their institutions have contributed at least $1 million to the governor's re-election efforts in the past four years." Vielkind wrote.

A pay-to-play lobbying culture is nothing new in Albany, of course, but it is a problem Gov. Cuomo promised to help clean up. Yet when he stripped legislators of member items, taking away their opportunities to sin, he hoarded those chances to himself, and indulged in them.

"There's always been a connection in every state between political giving and corporate benefits. There was gambling in Casablanca, apparently," Richard Brodsky, a former assemblyman who is now a fellow at a progressive think tank called Demos, told Capital NY. "It's just another reason the whole system needs to be reformed."

That same trend was revealed in a New York Times investigation into Gov. Cuomo's Moreland Commission, which was supposed to investigate and prosecute corruption. When the commissioners started finding hints of corruption in the governor himself, however, he tried to steer them away and then killed the commission altogether.

The Legislature must assert itself and make the REDC process more neutral and more transparent. While the North Country REDC reveals its top-priority requests before the gifts are given out, it has regularly denied requests, via the Freedom of Information Law, to show all its applications and how it made its prioritizing decisions.

So there is much about the REDC process that needs reform, but should it be continued at all?

The North Country has received more money than any other region over the last three years - $274.7 million - but that doesn't make it good, fair policy, and it doesn't always improve local people's lives as much as if, for instance, the state spent that money on roads or teachers.

The REDC might be justifiable if it's reformed, but if not, it should be abandoned.



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