Cuomo allies oppose council dislcosure

ALBANY - Gov. Andrew Cuomo's allies are pushing back against a bill that would require members of the state's Regional Economic Development Councils to detail their personal finances and business ties.

Members of the Finger Lakes and Western New York regional councils penned similar letters this week to state lawmakers, panning the bill as an effort to "derail" the 10 regional councils, which have been at the center of Cuomo's economic-development strategy.

Supporters of the measure say it would bring much-needed transparency to the regional-council process, which has doled out more than $5 billion in state grants and tax breaks since 2011.

In the letters, Cuomo's allies appear unconvinced, claiming it's a smokescreen to try and harm the councils, which some lawmakers have become increasingly wary of. Lawmakers have questioned Cuomo's ability to direct the funds to project in their districts; they instead want greater control.

"This invasion of privacy is just another ruse to end the (Regional Economic Development Councils)," read a letter Monday to Assembly Majority Leader Joseph Morelle, D-Irondequoit, Monroe County.

The letter to Morelle was signed by four people: Wegmans CEO Danny Wegman and Monroe Community College Anne Kress, the co-chairs of the Finger Lakes council; Constellation Brands CEO Robert Sands, a Cuomo campaign donor; and Greater Rochester Chamber President & CEO Robert Duffy, who led the council process as Cuomo's lieutenant governor from 2011 through 2014.

Each year, the 10 councils put together individual plans to spur development in their region, recommending public and private projects for state grants and tax breaks. Cuomo appoints the members of the councils, which include business, academic, non-profit and labor leaders.

At the end of the year, Cuomo's administration hosts an awards ceremony, detailing how roughly $700 million will be split among projects in the regions.

Wegman is one of 10 business leaders who co-chair their local council. Others include Corning Enterprises CEO Tom Tranter and Regeneron CEO Leonard Schleifer.

If approved, the bill would require them to disclose their earnings, stock holdings, business stakes and property owned each year, which state lawmakers and many officials are already required to do.

Or they could choose to quit the councils instead.

Assemblyman Tom Abinanti, D-Greenburgh, Westchester County, said the bill -- which he sponsors -- is about opening up the council process.

If the council members have a hand in recommending projects for grants, the public should know where their financial interests lie, Abinanti said.

Some of the companies or entities of current and former regional council leaders have benefited from state aid or have business dealings with the state, a 2015 review by the USA Today Network's Albany Bureau found.

"This is a good-government bill that furthers transparency in government," he said. "We're talking about billions of dollars in economic development funds, and these councils have a life or death grip on these monies."

The bill was approved by the Assembly Economic Development Committee on Wednesday, putting it a step closer to a full floor vote.

The letter to Morelle was similar, but not identical, to another letter sent Tuesday to members of the Legislature's Buffalo-area delegation from the Western New York council's co-chairs: Jeff Belt, president of SolEpoxy Inc.; and SUNY Fredonia President Virginia Horvath.

Both letters point out that council members are required to sign a code of conduct and conflict of interest certifications, which require them to recuse themselves from discussions involving potential grants for their companies.

Both letters paint the councils as success stories. And both letters urged lawmakers to "stand up" for their region.

"We need our Western New York delegation to stand up for Western New York and the REDC that is coordinating our regional renaissance," Belt and Horvath's letter read.

In an interview Tuesday, Duffy said his letter wasn't meant to specifically target Morelle, who sits on the Finger Lakes council.

The members of the councils volunteer their time, Duffy said, and the bill would pose a serious threat to the councils' ability to attract top business leaders.


"To have them put forth their own personal and business financial forms is wrong and a huge invasion of their privacy," Duffy said. "The reaction is going to be pretty simple: Most of these people will just not do it anymore in the future."

Morelle said he is a strong supporter of the regional council process. He sits on the Finger Lakes council and hasn't taken a position on Abinanti's specific bill.

But he said he does believe the state should do more to bring transparency to its economic-development programs.

"I do think that the Legislature ought to -- hopefully in conjunction with the governor -- try to increase transparency and accountability," Morelle said. "These are public dollars."

Gannett


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