After all the hoopla and rhetoric surrounding his release of the 2013-14 budget last week, Gov. Andrew M. Cuomo must now sell it to an often skeptical business community.
That’s exactly why he dispatched Kenneth Adams, president of the Empire State Development Corp., to the Amherst Chamber of Commerce luncheon Monday at Salvatore’s Italian Gardens in Lancaster. As Adams made a detailed pitch to the business leaders of upstate’s fourth largest municipality on the merits of Cuomo’s $142.6 billion spending plan, he failed to win over everyone.
But there is no question this group is at least willing to listen, and appreciative of any attention paid to them by Albany.
“When someone from the state level comes to tell us about good things for me and for Western New York, it makes people in Buffalo say ‘We hear you,’ ” said Vincent Ricotta, director of business development for Concept Construction Corp. “That never happened before.”
Indeed, the approximately 100 people attending Adams’ presentation seemed heartened by a budget that is short on tax increases and long on economic development. Adams, the former head of the Business Council of New York State who now spearheads the state government’s economic development programs, recited the litany of new programs and policy initiatives outlined during Cuomo’s budget presentation last week.
But he also touted the budget in the context of Cuomo’s now-three-year administration, pointing to this year’s projected $1.3 billion deficit as minor compared to what might have been without spending cuts enacted since 2011.
“If those cuts had not been made, like the dramatic cuts in Medicaid spending, we’d be looking at a $17 billion deficit today,” he said, explaining the governor’s “live within your means” budget directive.
Like other officials of the Cuomo administration assigned to explain budget details around the state in recent days, Adams related a detailed defense of the new plan. As the state’s chief economic development officer, he made a special effort to emphasize plans aiming at “jobs, jobs, jobs.” He praised now-familiar proposals to more closely link the state’s universities to its research and manufacturing firms, calling for improvement in the state’s national rank of 22nd in industry-sponsored research – compared to national leader North Carolina.
He explained the “innovation hot spots” concept that creates 10 tax-free zones around New York to serve as high-tech incubators, and he dwelled on new plans to reform workers’ compensation and unemployment insurance. He also detailed the governor’s proposals to boost green technology and to market regional attractions, among others.
For the most part, business leaders attending the session liked what they heard. Amherst Chamber President Colleen C. DiPirro commended Cuomo for the effort to explain the budget on a local level. Controversial proposals like raising the minimum wage to $8.75 per hour don’t always fly with business people, she said, but she recognizes a willingness to engage in discussion.
“There’s not a more controversial issue than the minimum wage,” she said. “But he’s not ducking it. And in the end we’ll come to a compromise position everyone can live with.”
Thomas Shellberg, who heads business development for Picone Construction Co., said his industry remains wary of a state government requiring companies to jump through too many permit process hoops. It needs streamlining, he said.
Still, he was “optimistic” about what he heard Monday, and knows new construction opportunities lie ahead because of state programs at the Buffalo Niagara Medical Campus and the Richardson complex.
“Anything government can do to jump-start the private sector we’ll jump on too,” he said.
Others like Gerald Kelly, of Coldwell Banker Commercial Meridian, liked Adams’ new ways to guide binding arbitration, including a 2 percent cap on awards paid by governments under “fiscal distress.”
“The binding arbitration proposal was very creative,” he said. “That’s been a problem from Day One.”
Adams said he is encouraged by the business community’s reaction to the Cuomo budget plan as he travels around the state. As he pointed out in his remarks, he thinks it is recognizing that the governor’s promises have so far been backed by action.
“The positive response from the chambers and from small-business owners is fueled by the governor’s message of fiscal discipline,” he said.