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Dimwitted Disunity

Now it's Upstate right-wingers who want to split New York

Before Hong Kong became a part of China again, it was a city-state that enjoyed fabulous prosperity, creativity, and freedom. In the good old days, many a resident of New York City fantasized about how sweet the liberation would be if only Gotham could shed the dead weight of its Upstate country cousins. The late writer Norman Mailer ran a campaign for mayor premised on seceding from New York State; he said that, after the City went solo, the rest of the state could call itself Buffalo for all he cared.

These days, it’s the country cousins who are talking secession. Earlier this year, suburban Rochester State Senator Joseph Robach introduced legislation to make Upstate New York independent, so that it could become the 51st state. Suburban Buffalo State Senator Michael Ranzenhofer is a co-sponsor of this bill. So is suburban State Senator Dale Volker.

I will save the insane details of their bill for last, because it’s the sentiment that matters—the same sentiment we encounter in the Unshackle Upstate campaign, which has been endorsed by a bunch of chambers of commerce in our part of New York. These organizations endorse a legal and economic separation from the part of our state where much of the economic power resides, namely, in five or so lower Hudson Valley counties plus New York City and Long Island.

To paraphrase Woody Allen in the movie Annie Hall, “Don’t you see? The rest of New York State looks upon New York City like we’re left-wing, communist, Jewish, homosexual pornographers. I think of us that way sometimes and I live here.”

Economic fantasies

New York City folks have a basis for the gripe that Upstate is more like a blood-sucking wood-tick than a good partner.

The mayor’s budget office in New York City estimated a few years ago that Upstate gets $11 billion more than it puts into the state till in Albany. More recent work at the Center for Economic and Policy Studies shows that Erie County gets—in addition to the massive $75+ million federal handout that allowed the current county government to balance its budget—over $1 billion more in state spending than is produced here in state revenue. Manhattan Island alone accounts for over 25 percent of all state tax revenue; the New York metro area accounts for 75 percent of the money Albany uses to support education, Medicaid, welfare, the state police, the 46-campus SUNY system, and the rest of what state government does.

But if Robach, Ranzenhofer, Volker, and the other sponsors of the Secession bill are serious (which, of course, they’re not), we should do an economic impact study of what Upstate would look like without all the handouts New York gives us.

Maybe we’d look like Ohio. Ohio is a state without the burden of the Taylor Law, which is the historic legislation that allows public employees the bargaining power and benefits that the Unshackle Upstate campaign so vigorously decries. Would being like Ohio create a great economic renaissance in Upstate?

Well, the evidence is mixed. According to a survey by the nonpartisan Brookings Institution, employment and housing values are suffering badly in our current national economic miasma. A measure of “gross metropolitan product” is illuminating. In Akron, GMP is down 7.6 percent and housing values have declined 0.7 percent in the past year. In Cincinnati, GMP shrunk 6.3 percent, but housing values rose a fraction, up 0.4 percent. In Cleveland, GMP fell 8.5 percent and housing lost 0.9 percent. In Dayton, the drop was 6.9 percent and housing lost 0.6 percent.

In Buffalo and Rochester, our recession-time GMP got worse—shrinking 4.1 percent and 5.0 percent, respectively—but our housing values rose 3.7 percent and 3.1 percent. We look better in both measures than Ohio.

Overall population and employment trends in both Ohio and Upstate are similar, which is why observers point to deindustrialization and suburban sprawl as common problems in both areas. But has a public-employee rights package in Upstate made the recession here worse? The numbers clearly say that the recession is hitting harder in the state without the Taylor Law than it is here.

SUNY without Downstate?

This week, the Buffalo Niagara Partnership and others once again asked New York State government to invest many, many hundreds of millions of new dollars in the UB 2020 expansion and development plan. The Partnership is the leading lobbyist against the Taylor Law, and against progressivity in the state income tax, and regularly decries Albany’s spending.

At its Monday event unveiling the 2010 Regional Agenda, the Partnership laid out a detailed wish-list, topped by its ask for $104 million in state funds for the Buffalo Niagara Medical Campus. The Partnership reasserted its ask for the UB 2020 plan, which is currently sketched in as about $2.5 billion over the next 10 years.

All that money will have to come from somewhere. Somewhere else, actually. What the leading local business advocacy group is asking for is for a very large annual increment of new state spending—over $100 million per year over and above the current state input, which is already over $1 billion more than the state collects in revenue here. In fact, depending where precisely one draws the line on the map, more than 30 of the SUNY campuses are outside of the Hudson Valley-NYC-Long Island area that produces 75 percent of New York State tax revenue—so SUNY is an Upstate benefit whose bills are paid Downstate.

That’s how it is in a state where one city has become a giant. That’s how it is in Illinois, where the split is between the gigantic Chicago metro of about eight million people, and the rest of the state’s four million or so. Resentment of giant Detroit is rampant in small-town and mid-size urban Michigan. Pennsylvania has a huge pole of wealth and population called Philadelphia, a smaller one called Pittsburgh, and in between, as James Carville famously said, is Alabama. Resentment of the rich, the large and the sophisticated is an old strand in the populist chord, here and elsewhere—but especially here.

That’s why we get stupid political posturing like the legislation sponsored by Robach, Ranzenhofer, Volker, and a couple of others from Upstate. These people actually put forward a bill for the purpose of making the gesture of solidarity with the notion that we are virtuous yeomen up here in the pure country air of Upstate. While Manhattanites roll their eyes at once more hearing the whining from our business elite, our legislators put forward a bill that would allow individual counties to opt out of remaining in New York State—thus confirming every thought that New Yorkers have about us, including that we are so dim-witted that we can’t even figure out that we’d all have to want to leave together rather than piecemeal if we were to give them their wish and get out of their wallets.

I hope we do get a grand new UB 2020. I hope we get the best medical talent and the best Buffalo State College investments that the New York metro area can buy us. We should all endorse the wish-list of the 2010 Regional Plan. And then we should get out our checkbooks, and politely, without further whining, pay our taxes, because all this good stuff will come to us from taxpayers, of whom, in the still-united New York, we here number but few.

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