Lawmakers rail against lack of oversight on state projects

ALBANY – State lawmakers continued a push Wednesday to improve oversight of the state’s economic-development programs, saying taxpayers are often left in the dark about how their money in an effort to lure new jobs to New York.

Assembly Republicans and the head of the Assembly's economic-development committee introduced bills to increase transparency over the $8 billion the state spends annually to provide tax breaks and incentives to companies to expand and locate in New York.

The calls followed a series published online Wednesday by the USA Today Network in New York that detailed how the state's myriad programs lack independent oversight and often haven't met job goals.

“There needs to be significantly more transparency and accountability over the distribution of taxpayer money,” Assemblyman Robert Oaks, R-Macedon, Wayne County, said.

Assembly Republicans, who are in the minority in the chamber, urged their colleagues to back their bill, which would establish a three-member committee to review and approve earmarks for local projects.

The measure would also strengthen laws dealing with conflicts of interest and require an independent review of the effectiveness of the economic-development programs.

Assembly Minority Leader Brian Kolb, R-Canandaigua, Ontario County, said the current process of dishing out billions of dollars in grants and tax breaks is too opaque and controlled too much by Gov. Andrew Cuomo.

For example, the state has 10 regional economic development councils that recommend projects to the state for funding. But the votes to decide what projects get the money rest 80 percent with state agencies controlled by Cuomo and 20 percent with the councils.

"This is not a dictatorship. One man should not determine how much economic development money is spent in this entire state," Kolb said.

Cuomo spokesman Rich Azzopardi knocked Kolb's comments.

“Every dollar for these projects is approved through the budget process and has to go through the Public Authorities Control Board --- a member of which Kolb appoints," Azzopardi said. "Either he’s looking for a cheap press hit, or he doesn’t know the powers of his own job -- it’s embarrassing either way."

Kolb does have a member on the Public Authorities Control Board, a powerful panel that has to approve projects by state authorities. But Kolb's appointee is a non-voting member of the board by state law.

Kolb said the Legislature is an separate branch of government and should install laws to protect the public's money without needing Cuomo's approval. Most agreements at the Capitol are three-way deals between the two legislative leaders and the Democratic governor.

"We have a right to act independently from the governor. We don’t need three way agreements when it comes to legislation," Kolb said.

Following the USA Today Network report, Reclaim New York, a conservative think tank, started a petition Wednesday for the public to urge their lawmakers to vote to drop many of the subsidy programs.

"These programs are not working for New Yorkers. We can’t afford them," the group said. "They aren’t creating jobs.They’re a proven waste of money and riddled with conflicts of interest."

Lawmakers are seeking new laws regarding the state's economic-development programs before the legislative session is set to end June 21.
Assembly Economic Development Committee chairman Robin Schimminger submitted legislation Wednesday that would require the state to create a public, searchable database of the state's economic-development benefits from various programs.

Business and good-governments have been clamoring for a similar "Database of Deals."

State officials said they already provide details through the regional council awards each year, as well as various reports through Empire State Development, the state's economic-development arm.

But Schimminger, D-Kenmore, Erie County, said more needs to be done. His bill is sponsored by Sen. Tom Croci, R-Suffolk County, giving it bi-partisan support.

“It is absolutely essential that the state’s economic development programs are administered in a responsible, transparent and open manner and that the performance of the programs can be reliably and accurately measured,” Schimminger said in a statement.

Other lawmakers said more transparency over the state's massive job-creation programs is an important goal before the legislative session ends.

"This is the taxpayers’ money. They should know where every penny is going and how it’s spent," said Sen. Terrence Murphy, R-Yorktown, Westchester County.

Lawmakers are considering a number of bills, such as providing more oversight powers to the state Comptroller's Office in the wake of a bid-rigging and bribery scandal involving some of Cuomo's former top aides.

Senate Majority Leader John Flanagan, R-Suffolk County, said negotiations are continuing over procurement reform.

"Yes, the talks are ongoing. Can I represent finality? No," Flanagan said Wednesday.

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