New York State Senate

At "Upstate Hunger Games," were the odds ever in the regions' favor?

In the movie and books “The Hunger Games,” regions perform in a televised death match to be rewarded with riches.

The Upstate Revitalization Initiative, or “Upstate Hunger Games” as it’s been dubbed, was not quite that high-stakes. But a large chunk of state development funds was on the line. Central New York, the Finger Lakes and Southern Tier regions emerged victorious on Thursday when they each won $500 million over five years in economic development funds.

The three regions beat out the Capital Region, Mid-Hudson, North Country and Mohawk Valley regions.

Critics claim the awards are a way for the Cuomo to punish or reward regions and lawmakers who have been critical of his administration in the past. Others have suggested the awards may be a ploy for Cuomo to garner support in counties he lost to his Republican opponent in the 2014 gubernatorial election.

Although Gov. Andrew Cuomo undeniably stands gain political favor from the victorious regions, political observers said the winners were likely chosen on the merits and not political maneuvering because no matter what region was selected Cuomo was likely to benefit or recieve criticism. 

“Can I say that I know politics doesn’t enter into the equation? No. I can’t say that about anything that any elected official does,” Steve Greenberg, founder and principal of Greenberg Public Relations, said. “But I’d like to think there are better arguments for doing this on the merits then there are for doing this politically.”

Greenberg went on to say that no matter which regions Cuomo chose, he was going to face criticism and therefore, it was in his best political interest to choose the best candidates.

“I think this is one of those things where the governor knows that he will get beat up for politics and praised by the winners no matter what he does, so they make the effort to pick the three regions that are most deserving and try to give money what they think is most deserving, because to do anything else doesn’t make sense,” he said. “There’s the old cliché that ‘good government is good politics.’ Well, it’s a cliché for a reason.”

Ultimately, many of the upstate regions have received attention from the Cuomo administration. The Capital Region and Mohawk Valley regions both have nanotechnology plants thanks to state funding. New York City, Long Island and Western New York were ineligible to compete as was Western New York, which has benefitted from the well publicized “Buffalo Billion” it was promised in 2012.

The Finger Lakes region was already the future home of a $600 million photonics center, but the Southern Tier has repeatedly been snubbed when the Cuomo administration banned fracking and refused to give the region a casino license, although it ultimately won a license when the bidding process was reopened.

“My sense is that it was structured so that the best substance would make for the best politics and I thought it was a rather exquisite set-up by the governor’s people,” Bruce Gyory, a political consultant at Manatt, Phelps & Phillips, said. “They have every incentive to make sure the substance is in place, so that means these grants produce economic development gains.”

Cuomo’s support in the regions is not clear cut, either. In the 2014 gubernatorial election, he lost Monroe County, the biggest county in the Finger Lakes region, to his Republican candidate, Rob Astorino. But Cuomo won in Broome and Onondaga counties, the centers of the other two winning regions. 

“Ultimately, five years from now, 10 years from now, 50 years from now, he’s going to be judge on what he accomplished – and we know he loves to do big things,” Greenberg said, noting the construction of the new Tappan Zee Bridge and La Guardia Airport. “The really, really big thing that is not as quite as tangible as an airport or a bridge is revitalizing the upstate economy.”

While the ultimate selections may not have been political, the overall process has many detractors. The conservative Empire Center for Public Policy has long been critical of the idea of regional economic development councils. Their rival progressive think tank the Fiscal Policy Institute also takes issue with the policy. 

“I think ultimately the process if flawed and this notion of a competition among regional economic development councils for large pools of money was a misguided proposition to begin with,” Ron Deutsch, interim executive director of the Fiscal Policy Institute, said. “I would suggest we need better performance measures put in place to spend this money wisely as we invest in the name of job creation.”

Deutsch added that there would not be speculation about the political reasons behind wins the competition if there was a better process.  

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