Playing Poli-Scrapple

Scrapple, a delicacy I grew up with in western Pennsylvania, is an acquired taste.

Throw leftover scraps of pork butt and ham hocks into a hot pan with onion, celery, sage, cornmeal, a lot of butter and—voilà—you get a cheap, filling dinner (especially when chased with a slice of red velvet cake, another Keystone State specialty).

It’s not a dish for people who like playing it safe; sometimes the ingredients aren’t what you’d call haute cuisine (e.g., pig snouts instead of ham hocks). I remember my mother, plate in hand, carefully eyeing the CorningWare at potluck dinners and turning up her Bronx-born nose at anything resembling scrapple.

I was more adventurous. Yes, its component parts were sometimes unappetizing, but in the end, most of the time, it was a rewarding culinary experience.

Like most regional dishes, scrapple was born out of a need for thrift—a recipe created from scraps of the previous week’s leftovers.

When it comes to the economy, upstate New York should follow the logic behind this Pennsylvania Dutch dish: Select a few politically palatable ideas for job growth, discard the politically unpalatable ones, let them simmer and see what happens.

Tim Wu, a Columbia professor and candidate for the Democratic nomination for lieutenant governor, recently said, “The recovery hasn’t worked for upstate New York.”

What will work?

I asked 12 people from a variety of backgrounds and political perspectives the following question: “What could state government do, or undo, in order to spur sustainable job growth in upstate New York?”

The following is what I heard. When you toss out what isn’t in the cards right now, what’s left may have the makings of an economic recovery made from scraps of public policy from both the right and the left.

In other words, poli-scrapple.

I began with the Business Council’s vice president of government affairs, Ken Pokalsky, asking him to name off the top of his head five desirable regulatory reforms to improve the upstate economy.

Pokalsky’s list included the approval of hydrofracking; reform of the State Environmental Quality Review process (“How many bites at the apple do various opponents of a project have?”); elimination of energy assessments (“There is $950 million in annual assessments imposed by the PSC”); and promoting natural gas infrastructure (“The trend line for gas prices has come down … but we don’t have the regulatory apparatus to go forward”). “All these things are things the administration can do,” he explained. “They don’t have to ask the Legislature.”

Many of these suggestions were repeated by others, but it was Pokalsky’s last reform that goes into the pot first: an update of the state’s workers’ compensation laws.

Back in 2007, under Gov. Eliot Spitzer, several workers’ compensation reforms were passed by the Legislature, but full implementation of important cost-saving provisions were delayed for years. In addition to full implementation of these reforms, Pokalsky said the Business Council had urged the current administration to take other steps, including updating the Scheduled Loss of Use medical guideline, which determines the payouts associated with full or partial loss of specified body parts. According to Pokalsky, the guidelines haven’t been updated since 1996.

Brian Sampson, the executive director of Unshackle Upstate, a group devoted to improving the business climate north of Westchester County, agrees with most of Pokalsky’s ideas. Sampson’s additional contribution is one he makes along with former gubernatorial candidate John Faso: Eliminate the 18-a tax on energy. Senate Democrats were also willing to eliminate this assessment this year, so it’s politically viable.

Stephen Acquario, the executive director of the New York State Association of Counties, agrees in principle. “All eyes in the long-term need to be focused on the cost of energy,” he said. “Energy costs in New York are well above the national average.”

Faso came up with a few additional ingredients too. He wants to end what he calls “corporate welfare”— programs like Start-Up NY and film tax credits.

People who are not necessarily on the same side of the political spectrum agree with Faso.

David Liebschutz, a public service professor at SUNY Albany, and former director of strategic planning with the Center for Governmental Research, said of these economic development initiatives, “I think what shouldn’t happen is that the state should not be in the business of picking winning and losers. So the whole regime … to entice economic growth in certain areas, it becomes a zero-sum game. That is not long-term sustainable.”

His addition to this scrapple stone soup is mandate relief.

“If there was a single thing that I think would result in long-term sustainable job growth, it would be a reduction in state mandates,” said Liebschutz.

For a specific mandate, let’s turn to Mike Elmendorf. The president and CEO of the Associated General Contractors of New York State, Elmendorf recommended Scaffold Law reform. “It will reduce costs on local governments and school districts, and thus ease the property tax burden,” he said. “And as probably the most glaring and offensive remaining vestige of the ‘old New York,’ it would send a powerful signal that this really is a ‘new’ New York.”

I agree that its value as a symbol of change makes it a great addition to our dish. Others will disagree, but this is an exercise in compromise.

Fracking will not be added to our dish because there is no consensus around the issue.

Poll after poll shows that, by a slight margin, more people in the state oppose fracking than want to open up the state to drilling. Assemblywoman Barbara Lifton represents that view. “Say no to fracking. Fracking actually hurts an economy,” she said. “Instead, invest in renewables. Not only is it good for our economy and the environment, it would be good for jobs. For every million dollars spent on fossil fuel we create 3.7 jobs. For every million dollars spent on renewable energy in wind, we create 9.5 jobs; in solar, we create 9.7 jobs.”

Lifton urges continued investment in programs like NY-Sun and the Green Bank.

Mayor Stephanie Miner’s contribution is unusual, but critical to our recipe for creating jobs: highspeed broadband.

“Broadband is the foundation of a modern economy,” said Miner. “I’ve come to think of it as a modern-day Erie Canal, where the Erie Canal, 100 years ago or so, revolutionized the marketplace and opened up the West. The modern-day Erie Canal is broadband. Every modern business needs access to high-speed, affordable Internet, and because the way the telecommunications companies and the regulators have done it, we see less competition, which has resulted in poorer service and higher costs.”

Miner is not a fan of the Comcast/ Time Warner merger, and hopes the PSC doesn’t approve it.

Our final ingredient is a change in approach.

State Sen. Joe Griffo, John Vero, a partner at the law firm Couch White, and Mark Eagan of the Albany-Colonie Regional Chamber of Commerce all argue the state needs an attitude adjustment when it comes to small business.

Griffo asked rhetorically, “Are we there to help someone succeed, or are we going to use regulations and departments … to prohibit growth?”

John Vero, who is also one of the leadership council members of the New York chapter of the National Federation of Independent Business, illustrated that point with a story.

“I was speaking with a business owner yesterday,” Vero explained. “He said, ‘John, I feel like I’m the bad guy. Meanwhile, I’m employing six people. I’m the one that’s up at night worried about if I can make payroll.’ ” Vero continued, “This guy is dealing with a tax audit, a workers’ comp audit, an unemployment insurance audit. He said to me, ‘I feel like I’m under siege from government. ’ ”

Arbetter (@sarbetter on Twitter) is the Emmy award-winning news director for WCNY Syracuse PBS/NPR, and producer/host of the Capitol Pressroom syndicated radio program.