Let’s Save Upstate New York: Divide the State to Free It

Upstate New YorkColton Hillman
Elmira, New York
Fordham University Student

  

Upstate New York and the New York City metro area would both benefit by dividing the Empire State but it’s the only way to save Upstate if we’re serious.

While attending school at Fordham University in the largest city in the nation, it can be easy to forget about those living outside of the New York City bubble. New York State is a state of nearly 20 million people, with over 8.5 million right in the five boroughs. Under the bright lights, tall buildings and raw business success, it is hard to imagine that those within New York State’s borders struggle to succeed.

Just up the Hudson River, stretching from Buffalo to Binghamton, Plattsburgh to Poughkeepsie, almost the entirety of the upstate New York economy is in ruins. Of the 53 counties above Westchester and Rockland Counties, 45 have lost population since 2010. Something is wrong. Something needs to be changed. The state must be divided.

Upstate New YorkGrowing up and living in Elmira, New York, it is clear to see that upstate New York faces a dire situation. Just this year, the New York Federal Bank ranked Elmira as having the worst regional economy in the state. On top of this, nearly all other regions were rated as having “little or no growth.”

Elmira, a city of just under 30,000 people, is a reflection of the upstate economy: a once bustling city during the 50s and 60s that has now lost population over the last six decades. Other regional cities such as Binghamton, Syracuse and Rochester have all lost a significant portion of their populations over the past six decades. Buffalo, a city of nearly 600,000 people in 1950, now has 250,000. They all have something in common: they exist in the most overtaxed, overregulated and neglected area in the United States.

Under the veil of these population declines and economic collapses is the two-headed monster: high taxes and lack of opportunity.

Upstate New York

Taxes in New York are some of the most restrictive and oppressive of any state. Each year, the Tax Foundation, a political research group, releases a State Business Tax Climate Report. New York is rated at a disgraceful 49th of 50 in terms of tax climate. Forbes and Wallethub rated us in the bottom three. Our high local and state sales tax hampers spending, and our top 10 ranked income tax rates punish success, preventing high-wage earners from claiming residency in our state, further driving down tax revenue. More importantly, our property taxes are the highest in relation to housing values in the entire nation.

This regressive tax in progressive New York has a massive impact on our poorer residents, as all residents responsible for the same property taxes regardless of income level. In this category, New York is one of the only states that forces homeowners to pay for the vast majority of school taxes and Medicaid bills that the state should be responsible for. The continued pressure of these mandates on local governments have tied the hands of county governments and turned the property tax bill into an open tab for the state that restricts upstate expansion.

Aside from taxes, the state has maintained a stranglehold on the upstate economy through any new opportunities that arise. Governor Cuomo banned natural gas exploration in 2014. While in no way is this the end-all-be-all for the economy, safe and highly-regulated hydraulic fracturing could be the jumpstart that places like the Southern Tier of New York desperately need. The state and governor’s solution to alleviate the struggle of upstate’s ailing economy is to throw tens of millions of dollars at cities and regions, rather than actually focusing on real economic reform. Here, some regions “win,” but upstate still loses.

Upstate New York

With these descriptions and the struggles that upstate faces, I paint the picture that upstate New York is a vast wasteland. It is not. I would argue that we have the most beautiful scenery of any area in the nation. Our lakes, rivers and other natural wonders are true assets that we have learned to truly cherish and utilize. Other areas around the nation with comparable natural wonders have thrived, and many small towns in Washington State and Colorado have seen population spikes.

These states have been committed to fostering growth and promoting business. We can be just like these states. There is no reason why we need to be left behind.

Aside from economics and taxes, take, for example, New York State politics where there is no representation of upstate. The leader of the State Senate and Assembly are from Long Island and the Bronx respectively. The governor, attorney general, and comptroller are from the city or Long Island. Every year at the negotiating table between the governor and the legislature, not a single upstater has a voice. We are an afterthought, a bargaining chip for policies that can help those downstate.

This problem transcends political party. The New York State Senate is controlled albeit by a razor thin margin, by Republicans. A look at the political map is telling: of the 25 Senators above Westchester County, 22 are Republicans. Many are elected and re-elected as Republicans not because they toe the right-wing party line, but because the state party is the last thread of control to prevent a city takeover of state government.

Those in the senate and assembly who live in skyscrapers, studio apartments and penthouses govern those who live on farms and acres of land. Those who ride subways to work rule those who ride tractors to work. Those who work on Wall Street make decisions for those who the own barbershop or restaurant on Main Street.

A look to past elections is also revealing. In the 2014 gubernatorial election, Rob Astorino defeated Andrew Cuomo in upstate New York in a sea of red on the Election Day map. But the small, blue blips on the map are the ones that mattered. Astorino ran on simple ideas, not political ones: lowering income and property taxes, state term limits and ethics reform in the most corrupt state capital in the nation. These simple ideas resonated with the people that I live with, who are crushed by Albany’s tax burden every day. However, if you live in upstate New York, it is clear every day that we have little to no control over our own destiny.

Upstate New York

A proposal floating around the state is the idea of secession and dividing the state into regions. I think of this plan as a mutual breakup of a destructive relationship. The facts of the regions’ incompatibility are telling. In 2010, upstate contributed 24 percent to the state’s revenue but took 35 percent back.

On the other hand, the city gave more than it received back. Upstate is a heavy liability to the city economy. Right away, with division, the upstate region cannot survive on its own. If upstate was its own independent region tomorrow, the economy would almost definitely collapse. Instead, upstate needs time to form a government structure that fits its people and its needs, and could provide a means of recovery. This means a tax structure that mirrors a state like Pennsylvania or Michigan, not California.

In a new region, upstate could determine its own fate. Each region could bring needed reforms that clamp down on Albany corruption. Upstate votes would matter, and upstate would have its hands on the steering wheel for the first time in its existence and retain, not lose, population. No longer would upstate representatives be responsible for determining mayoral control in New York City. No longer would city representatives be responsible for property tax laws that do not even apply to them and their constituents. If New York City representatives believe that socialized medicine is a good policy decision, they deserve the right to pursue this goal. If the upstate and Long Island regions believe that repealing the gun control SAFE Act regulations are necessary, they deserve the right to pursue this goal.

As the population continues to dwindle, it is clear that upstate is losing the little clout that it has on the state stage. With each family that leaves, upstate loses one inch of power in Albany. The idea of “no taxation without representation” rings true. As upstate loses representatives in the state, it loses any hope of revival. Upstate needs its own system of government and its own set of leaders. It needs to be set free from the shackles in Albany, from people who have never been north of the Bronx. Taxes could be lowered. More control could be given to counties and cities to lower the cost of crippling property taxes. Schools could be better funded. Upstate New York can thrive again.

New York City and the downstate region could undoubtedly control itself. The tristate region has a GDP level that would place it as the 13th most powerful nation in the world. New York City’s police force is larger than 45 other states. They can sustain themselves and better govern their people. Upstate could almost certainly do the same.

Dividing the state must be a priority for all representatives in the New York State Legislature. City voters must declare their independence and upstate voters must also do the same. A coalition of these two groups must come together now to amend the New York Constitution and allow the voices of all citizens in the state to be heard. Democrats, Republicans, conservatives, liberals and moderates must give power back to the people. Maintain the state of New York, but allow each region to govern itself. A sole upstate or an upstate and Long Island government and an individual city government. Separate governors. A free upstate New York. A free New York City. A stronger New York.

 

The post Let’s Save Upstate New York: Divide the State to Free It appeared first on Natural Gas Now.

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