Empowering regionalism

Photo of Gov. Andrew Cuomo by Pat Arnow.

Photo of Gov. Andrew Cuomo by Pat Arnow.

When our reporters recently asked people questions about regionalism, they — and we — were surprised by how much the conversation tended to come back to governor Andrew Cuomo’s new system of allocation of resources organized by region. The fact that tangible state resources are being competed for seems to have entirely changed the ball game of state political allocation. It has empowered regionalism to an unanticipated extent.

To use one of the governor’s favorite buzzwords, there has been a transformation of regionalism. Rather than the traditional horse-trading among municipalities and counties for the division of spoils that it has been since time immemorial, regionalism is fast becoming a locally driven program to pursue measurable state revitalization objectives.

How was this accomplished? Several principles are involved.

First, a statewide annual competition for proposals has been established. The pot being competed for by non-profits and local governments contains hundreds of millions of dollars of state grants and loans available through Empire State Development.

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Secondly, other major state departments — where there’s a lot of money — are being asked to contribute out of their own budgets. This encourages a closer relationship between state budgets and local needs. Despite the rhetoric about bottom-up decision-making, the decisions about who gets the money are made in Albany. So far the process has favored applicants based on considerations other than intra-regional per-capita distribution.

Thirdly, the regional pots of money are being augmented by significant bonuses awarded by the state to regions whose proposals are most likely to further the region’s stated goals. Powerful financial incentives (approximately one dollar of every three in this year’s go-round) reinforce regional participation. In the halls of regionalism, the availability of money tends to concentrate many a mind.

There are weaknesses to the evolving plan, Nobody’s quite sure when the money that has been awarded will come, how it will be administered, and in what time frame projects will be completed. The regional economic advisory committees, which are very large, are composed almost entirely of the usual suspects unused to the new process. Might it be only a matter of time before political tradeoffs become more common in the setting of intra-regional priorities? Or will a new commitment to regional thinking take root?

We shall see.

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