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Push continues for greater oversight of economic development contracts

Karen DeWitt
WRVO News (file photo)

With less than two weeks left in the legislative session, some New York lawmakers are pressing for reform of the state’s economic development contracting process in light of a scandal that’s led to federal corruption charges against several former associates of Gov. Andrew Cuomo.

Republicans in the State Assembly say they are frustrated that there’s been no increased oversight in the state’s billions of dollars in economic development contracts, including the governor’s signature programs like the Buffalo Billion. Assembly GOP Leader Brian Kolb said proposals have languished for over a year.

“Since then, governor’s top aides have been arrested, programs have been corrupted, and nothing has changed,” Kolb said.

One of Cuomo’s former associates has pleaded guilty to corruption charges. Others, including the governor’s former top aide, face trials later this year on charges of bribery and bid-rigging. Cuomo has not been accused of any wrongdoing.

Kolb said the state’s accountability to the public for economic development investments has even gone backward.

In the new state budget, a job reporting requirement was rescinded for companies who participate in the Start-Up NY program. It offers 10 years of tax breaks for companies that locate near public college campuses. Before the reporting requirement was ended, the program — which spent over $50 million in ads — was found to have created just 400 jobs.

“Magically, it was forgotten to put in the reporting requirement,” Kolb said. “Right now we’re left to wonder how much money is being spent and for what purpose.”

Cuomo has said companies will still have to report their job creation numbers to the governor’s own Empire State Development agency.

Kolb’s Republican Party members are in the minority in the Assembly, and Cuomo is a Democrat. Nevertheless, there is a Democratic sponsor in the Assembly for a bill that would reinstate the authority of the state comptroller to review the economic development contracts.

Assembly Speaker Carl Heastie was noncommittal, though, on whether the legislation is making progress in the remaining days of the session. Heastie said, when asked by reporters, that “there’s nothing concrete” at this time.

Cuomo, who has spent little time in Albany since the state budget was passed, has proposed a different bill. It would add a new inspector general, under the control of the governor, to oversee economic development contracts. Cuomo’s bill has not advanced in the legislature.

In the state Senate, a similar bill to the Assembly’s has a majority party sponsor, Republican John DeFrancisco, who is deputy majority leader. That bill is ready to go on the floor for debate.

Cuomo said on Easter that he believed the session was essentially over for the year, and that he’d achieved all that he wanted in the budget.

Kolb said the legislature is a separate branch of government and doesn’t need Cuomo in order to act.

“We have the power, but do they have the will?” Kolb asked. “It’s time for the legislature to regain its mojo.”

Kolb said if the governor doesn’t like the resulting legislation, Cuomo can always veto the measure, and lawmakers can then decide whether to vote to override.

He said in the end, it’s the public’s money, through tax payments, that is being spent on the economic development projects, and he said they deserve to know the details.

“This is not our money to spend,” Kolb said. “We’re caretakers.”

Karen DeWitt is Capitol Bureau Chief for New York State Public Radio, a network of 10 public radio stations in New York State. She has covered state government and politics for the network since 1990.