'The largest convention center in the nation, period" -- in Queens? Is he kidding?
Nope. In his State of the State address Wednesday, Gov. Andrew M. Cuomo did, indeed, tout the same sort of white elephant already being chased by states and cities across the country.
Cuomo envisions a "state-of-the-art" facility at Aqueduct Racetrack nearly 20 percent bigger than the 3.1 million square foot McCormick Place convention center in Chicago -- which, as it happens, is reported to be running at only 55 percent capacity after a costly expansion of its own. In fact, as Steve Malanga of the Manhattan Institute think tank points out, there was already a nationwide glut of convention-center capacity even before the recession put a big dampener on the entire sector.
Elsewhere in the country, taxpayers are being stuck with the bill for underused, publicly subsidized convention-center and hotel space. Cuomo, however, said the state would pursue the Queens project as a $4 billion joint venture with the private operator of the Aqueduct racino.
This expectation, in turn, is surely based in part on the governor's hope that New York voters in 2013 will approve a constitutional amendment expanding casino gambling -- one of his other top economic development priorities.
"It will be all about jobs, jobs, jobs, tens of thousands of jobs," the governor said.
As job-creation strategies go, convention centers and casinos are straight out of a 1970s playbook. In this respect, Cuomo's "New NY" agenda looks more like "Old NJ" -- Atlantic City, N.J., that is, if on a much bigger scale.
Thankfully, a few better ideas surfaced here and there later in the governor's message. For example, he called for an "energy highway system" to link hydropower plants in Quebec and northern New York with energy-hungry consumers in the downstate region. If Cuomo is committing his formidable political skills to expanding the state's electrical grid, it can only be good news for the entire New York economy.
Cuomo also reaffirmed his call to reform public pensions through creation of a new pension tier. He stressed that pension benefits would be scaled back only for employees "not even hired yet" -- but then, almost in the same breath, proclaimed that pension reform cannot wait because "we have taxpayers who need help today."
It's too bad Cuomo still isn't assigning the same sort of urgency to mandate relief in general, an issue that became more pressing after last year's enactment of the governor's historic property tax cap.
In his first State of the State message, Cuomo shunted local mandate concerns to a "redesign team," which essentially accomplished nothing. He now says he'll look for more from a mandate relief advisory council created by the legislature last June. While not exactly encouraging, this approach offers at least a glimmer of hope to local officials, who need Cuomo to lead the charge on statutory changes that would make it easier to restructure costly labor union contracts.
It was good news, too, that Cuomo pledged to "hold the line on spending this year and close the remaining budget deficit with no new taxes and no new fees." Of course, this will be made somewhat easier by the governor's agreement with the legislature last month to extend $2.6 billion in higher income-tax rates on million-dollar earners, offset in part by small rate cuts for middle-class filers.
"We stimulated the economy by providing a middle-class tax cut," the governor said.
That economy-stimulating income tax cut works out to about $3.84 a week for a typical family of four in the New York suburbs. Don't wager it all in one place.