Afternoon read: Open for Business, closed to accountability?

A map of New York’s Regional Economic Development Councils. Image: regionalcouncils.ny.gov

New York’s Regional Economic Development Councils have been good to the North Country, and many would argue very good for the North Country. The REDCs pit New York regions against one another for economic development money from the state, and in the two rounds of awards given so far, the North Country has come out ahead. Late last year, North Country REDC won $90.2 million from the state; in 2011, it got $103.2 million, both among the top awards. In his state budget address in January, Gov. Cuomo confirmed the REDCs would be back for a third round, with $220 million in state funds, and has proposed giving those councils “a voice in how to spend new pots of money including a $50 million venture capital fund and several million more to support ‘hot spots.’”

Now, it’s worth remembering that this money’s coming from somewhere. This isn’t brand new money the state’s giving away — the REDC application process, evocatively known as the “consolidated funding application”, effectively replaces a more centrally-controlled system of distributing economic development funding. Here’s what the regional councils’ web site has to say about why that’s better (from the Frequently Asked Questions section):

The Regional Council approach is a fundamental departure from New York’s traditional economic development approach, which has been top-down and State-directed. The Governor’s vision is that the State will rely on regional expertise to identify and prioritize significant projects that would maximize the State’s return on investment.

But not everyone agrees it’s better, and in this case, by not everyone, I mean New York Assembly Speak Sheldon Silver. He’s in the Albany Times-Union’s Capitol Confidential blog today, voicing some objections to the new system. Basically, Silver complains that the REDCs, in to some degree replacing the “member item” system (which is, inarguably, flawed) take government out of the hands of legislators picked by the electorate, and put it into the hands of appointed councils.

More from the Capitol Confidential:

There was no discernible application process for the councils, which Cuomo aides stacked mostly with business leaders. Each council at least one representative of organized labor, and is co-chaired by a leader in higher education and business.

Area legislators were at first granted ex officio status on the councils, and given voting rights a year later.

“There’s a concern that the governor is attempting to expand the role of regional economic development council to the exclusion of the Legislature,” Silver, D-Manhattan, said.

He said it was not a question of changing funding amounts or accepting the ability to appoint members, but rather, “we are part of an appropriation process here, and we should continue to be part of an appropriation process. If there is no legislative authority for economic development councils — members are not subject to any rules or regulations — this question of taking over appropriation authority entirely is probably not appropriate.”

“When there are results — I was sitting at every meeting — I had no idea groups were even applying,” Silver continued. “I don’t know that there was any information offered.”

Complaints about how Gov. Cuomo governs often fall under the category of “we didn’t know what was going on” (cf. the new”New York SAFE” gun law, a major objection to which has been that the bill was passed too fast, and without enough time for public input). The governor has also been criticized recently as taking a heavy-handed approach to press inquiries, and for, it’s been alleged, forcing a DOT official into retirement after he spoke without permission to the Adirondack Daily Enterprise (and NCPR) reporter Chris Knight for a story about the state’s response to Tropical Storm Irene.

It seems that Assemblyman Silver’s criticisms of the Regional Economic Development Councils fall within those same lines. Of course, turf is turf and Silver’s complaints may just contain an element of sour grapes, but it seems worth thinking about, both in terms of the governor’s political career and in our future as a democratic body.

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5 Comments on “Afternoon read: Open for Business, closed to accountability?”

  1. This is NYS… where EVERYTHING administratively is done in secret, at least in state government. From gun laws that they backtrack on after only a few weeks to budgets to economic development slush funds… I mean councils. It’s par for the course.

  2. Jim says:

    Regional Councils are merely a smoke and mirrors game that have given Cuomo free reign to play a shell game with a vast array of funding sources. Truth is that most of the $90+ million that has been awarded to the North Country each of the past two years has been access to economic development bonds. Small communties and not-for-profits that have historically been able to access different pots of grant funding have, for the most part, been left high and dry.

  3. knuckleheadedliberal says:

    I encourage everyone to follow the link Nora gives in the first line. Prominent on the Home Page is a slideshow of the “Award Ceremony” with pictures of politicians handing out plaques in front of a big powerpoint showing the $millions that were being awarded.

    Nothing says “smoke and mirrors” more than politicians handing out plaques in front of a big screen saying “$90.2 million.”

    During the first “award’ the Capital Region was chaired by Dr Shirley Jackson of RPI in Troy. Guess what? RPI was granted funding through the REDC! Surprise! Now they have the President of SUNY Albany. Is there some chance that the School of Nanoscale Technology will be up for some funding this time? We’ll find out in the next episode of “Cuomo Gives Cash!”

  4. mervel says:

    How can you win an economic development award with 12% unemployment, high rates of poverty, and with a significant portion of the population receiving some form of government assistance?

    I don’t understand? I guess it means they are good at getting money to “do” economic development?

  5. Ann Melious says:

    After talking with legislators in Albany last week, I realized how much many of them miss the old “member item” days. Having that pot of money taken from them seems to be leading to a desire to get their hands into the regional economic development council process. I believe local economic development control is superior to funding calculated on how many votes it will generate for a legislator. And it should be noted that the regional council “vote” on priority projects accounts for 20 points in a 100 point system, so the individual state agencies are still weighing in (80 points) on projects according to well-established criteria. It seems to me that having a plan for the North Country is a better approach than scattershot funding to whomever hires the best grant writer or makes the largest campaign contributions. Those methods almost always guaranteed the North Country received only token project funding.

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