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Word watch: 'public-private partnership'

The cliché “private-public partnership” is getting a new workout. In theory the phrase is vague enough to mean anything from the U.S. hiring military consultants in Iraq to a public hospital holding a charity drive to a pay-to-play arrangement between a comptroller and investment companies.

In government, however, it has become jargon for such deals as getting a private company to build and maintain toll bridges or public buildings and collecting the tolls or rent. Even within that comes ambiguity.

On Friday, state Senate Majority Leader Dean Skelos became the latest state player to tout the general concept as a way to fund construction projects amid serious state deficits like the one Gov. Andrew M. Cuomo addresses publicly on Tuesday.

“We should seriously consider public-private partnerships and other financing ideas to leverage money from the private sector — something that Gov. Cuomo has also mentioned,” Skelos (R-Rockville Centre) told his Association for a Better New York audience.

Richard T. Anderson, president of the New York Building Congress, rose during a question and answer period to mention the bi-state Port Authority’s move to obtain private financing to rebuild the Goethals Bridge. He inquired about relevant legislation. “I certainly would be supportive of appropriate legislation that way,” Skelos replied, “and as I indicated, Gov. Cuomo is of the same opinion.”

The phrase evokes something positive as surely as the term 'special interests' sounds negative.

But there are potential pitfalls. In a report issued Jan. 10, state Comptroller Thomas DiNapoli warned of risks. Given the state’s high tax and debt load, these agreements beckon as alternatives for needed improvements, DiNapoli said. But the flip side may include: Giving up public assets for too little return; excessive fees or tolls, or gimmicks that provide only short-term fiscal relief.

The full report is available by clicking here.

Skelos' urging of a new capital program for the state won praise from some in the audience, among them host Bill Rudin, chairman of the Association for a Better New York, at whose breakfast the lawmaker spoke.

Also Friday, Prof. Mitchell Moss -- chairman of the NYU Rudin Center for Transportation Policy -- said "Dean Skelos at ABNY's breakfast today emerged as a savior of transportation infrastructure and investment.

"He endorsed the need to improve our airports, to build roads and bridges, and to use public-private partnerships to finance new transportation projects. Skelos cited Warren Anderson - the great Senate Majority leader who worked with Governor Carey to save NYC during the 1970s fiscal crisis." 

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