Exempt Upstate?

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Next week Sandy Parker travels to Buffalo to spread her "Unshackle Upstate" message. Kent Gardner from the Center for Governmental Research will join Parker at the Buffalo Niagara Partnership discussion ($25 a ticket).

The topic at the Buffalo talk: Can Upstate be granted freedom from strangling state policies?

Words like "unshackle" and phrases like "freedom from strangling state policies" really means something else.

Exempt Upstate.

Parker calls for giving the Upstate region a waiver from laws that keep business from coming here. Policies like uncapped workers compensation benefits… the Wicks Law… the Scaffold Law. She is hoping this exemption idea will become all the rage.

Parker would prefer to have the New York State Legislature repeal or reform measure like this statewide. But she doesn’t think state lawmakers (meaning downstate Assembly members) will embrace it. So, she suggests, give the economically distressed regions of New York a pass from the problematic laws on the books (For a refresher on her comments, go back to this MP3 of her interview on WXXI’s Need to Know).

Yet wouldn’t this exemption plan be just as unpalatable to state lawmakers as full reform? Wouldn’t this divide a state that’s already got a split personality? Wouldn’t this further fuel the folks on the fringe who want to split up New York into two states marking the boundary at Rockland and Putnam counties?

Besides, lawmakers would pass on creating two sets of rules in one New York, wouldn’t they? Maybe not.

"There would be some interest by a number of legislators" for the idea, said Assemblyman Joe Morelle, a Democrat from Irondequoit, who is also the Monroe County Democratic Party chairman.

Morelle said there is plenty of precident for treating some areas of the state differently than others. They range from small rules – like allowing right on red at stop lights everywhere except New York City – to larger concepts like Empire Zones, where more concentrated, distressed areas are allowed to give tax breaks and incentives.

He predicts that there could be some bills introduced in state legislature for upstate exemptions to state regulations.

Why?

"(The state’s) tax structure doesn’t have the kind of drag on New York City business as it does on Upstate," Morelle said. "It’s hard not to acknowledge that it’s vastly different to live in New York City as it is to live Upstate."

And, Morelle said, the economic indicators Upstate may just force Albany to look at other ideas.

Would exemption work? Well, it sounds a bit like the tax break syndrome that New York has long been in. I don’t have the stamina to look up just when the series of laws that created tax break programs and tax reduced zones began. But ask any New York legislator why all these tax giveaways are necessary and the answer you will get (on an honest day) is – since New York isn’t about to really cut taxes and spending, the tax breaks are needed just to keep pace with other states.

Once Upstate got exemptions from "onerous business laws," it would be hard to dislodge them. If the exemptions are perceived as working, upstate legislators and business people would say don’t change the system. If they aren’t, then you might hear that removing them would only make matters worse.

Perhaps, however, there is a more subtle reason for the Upstate exemption talk. Maybe it’s a kind of political gambit to inject Upstate’s plight into the upcoming gubernatorial and state legislative elections.

All in all a discussion like this can’t hurt – especially if it involves people like Eliot Spitzer, Bill Weld and the other gubernatorial wannabes.

The best course would be that this exempt Upstate talk leads to talks about reforms statewide that can truly aid the economy. Otherwise we might just want to carve the place up.

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