Cuomo pushes upstate economic development

Gov. Andrew M. Cuomo may be trying to Gov. Andrew M. Cuomo may be trying to change the conversation from political scandals and the struggling upstate economy with his recent blizzard of news conferences on attracting businesses to SUNY campuses through the offer of tax-free zones. (Nov. 8, 2012) Photo Credit: AP

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ALBANY -- Gov. Andrew M. Cuomo may be trying to change the conversation from political scandals and the struggling upstate economy with his recent blizzard of news conferences on attracting businesses to SUNY campuses through the offer of tax-free zones.

With most State University of New York real estate located north of New York City, some say the governor is trying to switch the focus of the final weeks of the legislative session to upstate economic development.

And Cuomo is trying very hard. Monday, he held his 11th news conference on the proposal in less than two weeks. Additionally, the state Democratic Party has bankrolled a series of TV commercials to promote the plan, which would create tax-free zones on the state's 64 public university campuses to attract businesses.

"It's pretty obvious, what's going on," said Edmund J. McMahon of the Empire Center, an anti-tax think tank. "He wants to change the subject."

The strategy for the emphasis is clear.

Political scandals, including indictments and resignations, have dominated New York headlines for two months, though none has touched the governor. Some of Cuomo's key agenda items, such as public financing of political campaigns, appear stalled.

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As for the upstate economy, Cuomo has put off indefinitely a decision on natural gas exploration in the Southern Tier and his proposal to establish non-Indian casinos upstate must first clear a statewide referendum and even then won't bear fruit for several years.

McMahon said the tax-free SUNY idea is "probably worth a try," saying it might help upstate a bit. But it won't be a "game changer" for the upstate economy, he said.

"The hyperbole he's applying to this" is overblown, McMahon said. He said that approving high-volume hydraulic fracturing for natural gas could be the biggest boon for upstate, but noted Cuomo has put off a decision multiple times.

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"It's difficult to not make the link between this [tax-free promotion] and his resolute inaction on [natural gas]," McMahon said.

Cuomo has acknowledged he wants to finish the 2013 legislative session on a high note, after a series of bribery and sexual harassment scandals triggered indictments and resignations of several state legislators this spring.

"[Legislators] should be able to turn around at the end of session and say, 'We have had a great session. We got a lot of good things done and, by the way, we did it despite everything else and all the distractions,' " Cuomo said recently.

Cuomo has said of the tax-free proposal: "It's big. It's bold." In news releases, he has said the program "will transform communities across Upstate New York into magnets for new businesses."

Asked last week about criticism that natural gas development could be bigger economically than tax-free zones, the governor replied that a decision on "fracking" would be made on science, not politics. He said fracking and tax-free zones are two separate issues.

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Business and municipal leaders have been generally positive about tax-free zones; legislative leaders, mildly so. They haven't committed yet, citing a lack of details.

Senate co-leader Dean Skelos (R-Rockville Centre) said Monday that he'd like to see the proposal opened up to allow more participation from private colleges. "That's one of the suggestions we're looking at now," he said.

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