BUFFALO, NY - Governor Andrew Cuomo is fond of claiming Upstate New York, and particularly Western New York, has experienced a record rebound in terms of its economic health under his watch.
But a new report joins a litany of others, which question the wisdom of spending billions of taxpayer dollars to lure jobs, with less than stellar results.
“We have been focusing on the economic turnaround in Upstate New York,” Cuomo recently told a crowd in Batavia, where he appeared to announce the city had been awarded $10 million as part of a state sponsored economic development program, one of a myriad created under Cuomo.
“Buffalo is now a national turnaround story,” said Cuomo, repeating a claim he makes virtually every time he visits the Western New York area.
And if not Cuomo, his appointed state economic development czar will often make similar statements.
“We’re living it, and you’re going to be living it. You guys are headed in the right direction thanks to this governor,” said Howard Zemsky, President of Empire State Development Corp., in addressing the Batavia gathering.
But the Federal Reserve Bank of New York, in a recent report, infers that any revival that may have occurred here as the state and the nation moved out of the recession (just as Cuomo first entered office) has stalled.
Since early 2016, according to its report based on early benchmarking of federal labor statistics, upstate job growth has been .03 percent.
That’s half the rate of the previous four years when upstate’s rate of job growth, while marginally improving, was still just half the national average.
The report also indicates the place in Upstate New York where Cuomo has committed the most taxpayer money in an attempt to jumpstart the economy — Buffalo — saw virtually no increase in job growth during the past year and a half, and that Rochester, the second-largest upstate economy, has lost jobs.
Most of Cuomo’s commitment of economic development dollars were through his “Buffalo Billion” program.
The largest single project of that program was the Riverbend Complex, which even prior to completion, was mired in scandal when several of its principles were indicted for alleged bid rigging and conspiracy.
While the project created a surge in construction jobs, construction is now complete. And early and lofty projections of 5,000 permanent jobs at what was initially billed as “the largest solar panel production facility in the Western Hemisphere” have yet to materialize.
Critics of the governor’s economic-development spending have for years been trying to shine a spotlight on the lack of results.
They include the dean of the Western New York delegation to Albany, NYS Assemblyman Robin Schimminger, who is a democrat like Cuomo.
“I do have concerns about the lack of transparency and accountability in the implementation of these programs,” Schimminger told WGRZ-TV.
So much so, that Schimminger sponsored legislation to add transparency to the programs, so that taxpayers can better discern how much of their money is being spent, by whom, and what the results of the efforts may be.
He’s not alone.
The office of New York State Comptroller Thomas DiNapoli has also claimed that state economic development efforts, including its Excelsior Jobs Program, have not only failed to create anywhere near the number of jobs forecast, but that Empire State Development (ESD) – which oversees the program- didn’t even have any reporting standards in place to hold companies benefiting from tax breaks to their job number promises.
Moreover, DiNapoli’s audit of the program also inferred that ESD changed the terms of agreements after the fact, perhaps in an attempt to make it appear that companies receiving state benefits were fulfilling their hiring pledges.
“The Governor is not that interested in hearing any of these things," Schimminger said.
And it doesn't stop there.
While in Batavia, Cuomo once again touted the 43-North Program, a contest which seeks to attract entrepreneurs and their startup companies to Western New York.
“And we give a grant to the best business idea, on the condition that you stay and grow in New York," Cuomo said.
However, as our news partners at Investigative Post recently revealed, most of the firms awarded money- then took their prize and left the region after only one year.
"Anyone who says anything critical immediately becomes an enemy," said Schimminger.
But after 40 years as a member of the State Assembly, Schimminger does not appear worried about any arrows slung his way.
“They didn’t elect me to be a toady for the administration," he said.
As recently as Tuesday, Cuomo, who is expected to seek re-election next year, was back in Buffalo describing what he called a “180 degree” turn in the region’s economic prospects since he took office.
But he also cautioned – as he often does - that there are risks associated with such economic development programs and that such risks must be taken.
His critics note, however, that Cuomo never gambles on their success or failure with his own money.