Opinion: Is there any substance behind the upstate secession movement?

New York’s upstate secession movement is not going away anytime soon. There have been bills introduced in the state Legislature, and upstate business interests periodically fan the flames of this movement.

Even Gov. Andrew Cuomo plays the regional resentment card, as he did during a recent interview on “Capital Tonight” in August: “When the majority (of the Legislature) are from downstate and you are from New York City, you’re all allied in one agenda, which is the New York City agenda,” and added that upstate advocates are “outgunned in the legislative process.” Bashing downstate is a time-honored way to grandstand before upstate voters, as former Republican Congressman Randy Kuhl (then a state senator) figured out when he suggested to The New York Times in 1999: “Why don’t you just cut the city of New York off and let it drift out to sea?”

This mythology of upstate/downstate animosity is popularly entrenched, as made clear by respondents to a 2009 Rochester Business Journal poll, in which 67 percent favored dividing New York into separate states:

“We have no clout upstate when it comes to ‘revenue distribution’ or controlling unfunded mandates,” said Rob Bick, an assessor in the town of Clay in central New York. “We have half the programs in our schools and twice the tax rates because the school aid formulas are tainted towards downstate revenue enhancement.”

“The tax burden for the welfare portion is legislated by the relatively rich downstate legislators and largely paid by those upstate,” said Donna Cullen, an upstate resident.

And from that same poll: “Upstate New York would thrive without downstate. The new state could eliminate the many mandates that the downstate legislators have imposed upon us. This would reduce the cost of government, schools, etc. The new state could become a low-tax haven for people and businesses,” said John Rynne, president of Rynne, Murphy & Associates Inc. 

Is there something substantive behind these comments beyond anger and frustration? Who actually gets hurt – and who is helped – if upstate secedes?

It depends on what you value. As a purely political exercise, secession movements have supporters everywhere in the world, be it Scotland, Catalonia, Ukraine, Tibet or Rochester – “we” want no part of “them.” In New York, that’s a reaction to population and demographic shifts, and being in a voting minority. If upstaters primarily value political control, secession holds some appeal. 

But a major argument for secession is the need to put upstate in charge of its own economy and throw off the economic drag of downstate. Again, theres a functioning lobbying organization, Unshackle Upstate, and a core of supporters for Republican, conservative, supply-side austerity economics.

The group has powerful friends, like the Business Council of New York State, which advocated for secession in a 2004 report: “Policies and costs are imposed on the upstate economy in ways that would not happen if upstate were a standalone state (with) the freedom to reduce the disadvantages that are smothering its economy.”

Here’s where reality ought to impinge on anger and ideology. It is the indisputable, if inconvenient, truth that upstate is the beneficiary of billions of dollars of subsidies paid by downstate taxpayers. This makes intuitive sense – the downstate economy thrives and the state tax system is progressive so that wealthier downstaters pay more in taxes than less affluent upstaters.

There is a trove of data to confirm this point. The best comes from the widely respected Rockefeller Institute of Government, whose 2011 report, “Giving and Getting, makes the case impeccably. 

The report found that New York City makes about 45 percent of state tax payments and gets back 40 percent in state expenditures. The downstate suburbs provide 27 percent of taxes and get back about 18 percent of state expenditures. Upstate pays about 24 percent in taxes and gets back around 35 percent of state expenditures. (There are also out-of-state taxpayers that make up the remaining 100 percent.)

The conclusion: New York City and downstate suburbs give far more than they get, while upstaters, by contrast, get significantly more than they give.

In dollar terms, that’s a sweet deal for upstaters – a $1,700 subsidy for each upstate resident courtesy of downstate taxpayers. In aggregate, that equals around $8 billion.

This is a problem for the secession movement. From a practical standpoint, no matter how tough things are in the upstate economy, a loss of $8 billion annually would create genuine havoc. Politically, an $8 billion subsidy, voted on without complaint by the devilish downstate majorities, undermines the convenient notion that nobody cares or does anything about upstate.

The first question is whether this arrangement is fair. Well, it is fair if you share the long-standing principle that wealthier persons and wealthier communities should help support the less wealthy. That was, until recently, the unchallenged theory of American government. With the rise of the Tea Party and austerity economics, there’s now a counter-meme: flat taxes and everyone watches out for his or her own needs.

There is considerable irony in the politics of all this. The loudest voices in support of austerity and reduced government taxes and spending are the prime beneficiaries of the system they oppose. Be it Unshackle Upstate, or the Business Council of New York State, or upstate politicians and citizens, there’s a cautionary note here: Be careful, the downstate establishment might decide to agree with you. There’s just as much political advantage for a downstate firebrand pushing secession as there has been for the advocates who have led the effort in demonizing downstate. It wouldn’t surprise me at all if a smart downstate legislator called upstate's bluff.

There are enormous mechanical problems to any attempt to secede, which makes it an unlikely real-world outcome. But these regional divisions, once unleashed, bounce around the body politic with unknown consequences.

There’s nothing wrong with examining policies and practices as they affect our differing communities, and one would like to be both sympathetic and helpful in getting the upstate economy revved up. But feeding the secessionist beast makes that a harder thing for people of goodwill to do.


Richard Brodsky is a former assemblyman who is in the private practice of law and serves as a senior fellow at both Demos and NYU's Wagner School. He is a regular columnist for the Albany Times Union and The Huffington Post.