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Spitzer unveils upstate agenda

A day before his first State of the State Address, Gov. Eliot Spitzer Tuesday released plans for a series of steps he said are needed to turn around the upstate economy.

He already talked about most of them during the course of his campaign for governor, but the packaging of them was still welcomed by business leaders as a sign that he is serious about dealing with the region’s economic woes.

Property-tax cuts, more aid for local governments and schools, a broadband network to cover the entire region and more help for small businesses are among the key points.

“The vision and goal of this effort is to tackle the underlying structural problems, make strategic investments and develop new engines of economic growth throughout the region,” Spitzer said.

The package “is most ambitious and most welcome,” said state Business Council spokesman Matthew Maguire. “It’s impressive to see how consistently aggressive he’s being in highlighting these problems and reaffirming his commitment to address them.”

The upstate economy has lagged the rest of the nation – and even the rest of the state – for more than a decade.

While jobs grew nationally by 21 percent between 1990 and 2004, the growth in the region north and west of Rockland and Putnam counties was only 3 percent. During the same period, the region lost a third of its manufacturing jobs. Both figures are among the worst in the country.

The number of people between 25 and 34 also declined by about 30 percent in the last decade.

Among the key points of Spitzer’s plan to turn that around, and what he has said about some of them in the past:

* Cutting property taxes by $6 billion over three years by increasing the state’s STAR program of homeowner exemptions from school property taxes, but with caps designed to “target” the cuts to the middle class.

* Creation of a Buffalo-based official to coordinate state job-creation activities. This is the most important post in his administration that Spitzer has not yet filled.
* Increased aid to upstate cities and towns. Spitzer said the aid “will be tied to critical belt-tightening measures “˜’that will set the municipalities on a path toward long-term fiscal stability.”

* Reforming the Wicks law that requires four separate contracts on public-works projects. He would exempt all projects costing less than $1 million upstate and $2 million downstate. Now the law covers all projects over $50,000.

* Reforming workers’ compensation. He has convened a panel of labor and business leaders to try to work out a compromise on the program that provides among the lowest maximum benefits in the country to injured workers while at the same time also being among the country’s most expensive for employers.

* Reduction of health-care costs. He has said he will call for less money to be spent on hospitals and nursing homes but more on preventive and primary care.

* Creation of a “stem-cell and innovation fund” to help start-up companies.

* Expansion of high-speed Internet access to poor parts of cities and rural areas.

* Provision of money to expand the Peace Bridge in Buffalo and continue the conversion of Route 17 across the Southern Tier into Interstate 86.

* Expansion of the capacity to generate electricity throughout the state, improving low-cost-power programs and making a “concerted effort” to increase the number of wind turbines.

* Fixing of the “lagging brownfields program,” which is supposed to clean up and make ready for development polluted former industrial sites. While the value of land downstate has led to most sites in that region getting cleaned up, much of the land area of upstate cities hasn’t been touched.

* Creation of an interagency task force and more state aid to combat violent crime, drug trafficking and gang activity in upstate cities.

* Creation of a “Pride of New York Wholesalers Market” in New York City to help upstate farmers to connect to downstate markets. He’ll also make more money available to try to protect farmland from being developed.

* Promotion of “enjoyment of outdoor activities and tourism in upstate New York.”

* Convening a meeting of government officials to plan how to deal with persistent flooding in the Southern Tier.

The plan doesn’t explain how Spitzer intends to pay for the initiatives. Spokeswoman Christine Anderson said that question will be answered when Spitzer delivers his budget plan to the Legislature. She said that will happen either Jan. 31 or Feb. 1.

She said he will report to lawmakers annually how the plans are proceeding with a “State of Upstate” report to accompany his annual State of the State address.

By Jay Gallagher
O-D Albany bureau