A State Assemblyman representing parts of Western New York wants to allow voters the chance to answer one simple question: should New York be divided into two entities? But even the lawmaker admits pursuing a split of upstate and downstate would be complex and one business leader in Buffalo suggests discussion of division is not the best way to address differences.
Stephen Hawley represents the 139th Assembly District, which covers all of Genesee County, all but one municipality in Orleans County and a portion of Monroe County. In a letter recently addressed to Assembly Speaker Carl Heastie, Hawley pushes for a chance to allow a non-binding referendum in which New York voters would be asked whether they'd support the idea of breaking the state in two.
Hawley suggests two New Yorks already exist and one of them, upstate, isn't getting its fair respect and representation in the current political leadership in Albany. He points to a series of bills passed since the start of the new legislative session, including abortion rights, gun restrictions and college tuition assistance for children of undocumented immigrants, as examples of a leadership which is ignoring the interests and feelings of a wide part of New York State.
"It seems to me folks who live in the North Country, Southern Tier, Central New York, Western New York... they've been contacting me, many in tears, over some of the things that have been happening over the last several weeks," Hawley said.
His proposed referendum, being non-binding, would not automatically set the wheels into motion if a majority of voters were to come back and say "yes, let's do it." Studies would then need to be conducted to determine whether it's even feasible. If so, further questions would need to be resolved, including how outstanding budget deficits would be covered, where the border would be drawn and how resources such as the New York State Power Authority and Thruway System would be split up.
Why not do the homework first? WBFO asked Hawley that question and he replied that several expensive studies have already come and gone but, as he sees it, it's important to have the public's involvement.
"What I'm actually trying to do is involve folks in a philosophical question to ascertain what their thoughts are on a two-New York situation," he said. "Then, we have to get into the nitty gritty. But to waste taxpayers' money beforehand, trying to find out all of the intricacies, seems to be a waste of money."
The sentiment of downstate versus upstate is nothing new. Many in Western New York insist the majority of tax dollars collected by Albany go straight to New York City and the immediate vicinity. The Rockefeller Institute, in a 2011 report, found that it's Downstate New York which pays more in taxes than what it gets back. The New York State Budget Division, meanwhile, states New York City alone accounted for 40 percent of income taxes collected by Albany. Add Westchester, Nassau and Suffolk Counties, the percentage rises to about 66 percent.
Dottie Gallagher, president and chief executive officer of the Buffalo Niagara Partnership, agrees with the notion that upstate and downstate have differences. Trying to address them through a referendum on a possible split, however, is not an idea she believes properly addresses the differences.
"I think it's sort of a pointless argument, to be perfectly honest," she said. "I think we have to focus on what we can do to grow the upstate economy and we need to get people in Albany to pay attention to the opportunities that exist here."
Gallagher credits Governor Cuomo's Buffalo Billion program, despite its controversies and scandals, for raising more awareness and support of Western New York's economic needs. She suggests, though, that the program should be only a kick-start and that the region needs to take the reins in order to move the economy forward.
At the same time, Albany can offer some other help.
"To me, it's about creating a tax climate and a regulatory climate that's attractive to business so that we get people moving back to New York," she said. "Quite frankly, they are moving into New York City. New York City's economy is very strong. So all the arguments about it, like the weather, it's nonsense. It's really about how do we create a more balanced and reasonable tax structure and regulatory environment for business in New York."