With its high taxes and overregulation, New York State has consistently ranked as one of the worst places to do business. Particularly hard hit over the years has been upstate New York, which has seen many employers flee during the past few decades. One group hoping to change that trend is Unshackle Upstate, a bipartisan collection of more than 75 businesses and trade organizations formed in 2006 to achieve legislative reforms and make Upstate a stronger place to do business.
Unshackle Upstate has since expanded as taxpayers and business operators have become more upset at the policies of the state legislature.
Many Upstate residents complain the state legislature is dominated by New York City politicians who ignore their concerns.
“Taxpayers are the single-largest interest group in New York, and they are listened to the least,” said Unshackle Upstate Executive Director Brian Sampson.
Sampson said New Yorkers have tolerated higher-than-average taxes and burdensome regulations for so long because Upstate is “a phenomenal place to live and raise a family” with excellent universities and opportunities for outdoor activities.
Tax, Jobs Bases Shrink
In the past several years, however, residents have been feeling the burdens of heavy taxes and regulations more than ever. Large employers such as General Motors and Bausch & Lomb have pulled up stakes, leaving behind a shrinking tax base and thousands of unemployed.
The state has been experiencing an exodus of young people, according to a 2006 U.S. Census report. Between 1990 and 2004 the number of 25-34-year-old residents in the 52 counties north of Rockland and Putnam counties declined by 25 percent. Those figures stand in stark contrast to those of the New York City region, which saw a 1.5 percent increase of people in that age range since 1990.
“You don’t just magically make it up with new births. These are people who are starting careers, starting families, buying homes,” said Public Policy Institute of New York President David Schaffer.
Spending at Breaking Point
Sampson said New Yorkers reached a breaking point during the 2009 legislative session when lawmakers added 9 percent, or $11 billion, in new spending to the state budget. Six Assembly Democrats, all from Upstate, joined their Republican colleagues in opposing the budget.
During the 2009 local and county elections, New Yorkers took their frustration out on incumbents. Among the upsets were Democrat county executives in Westchester and Nassau Counties who lost reelection to their Republican opponents despite having an advantage in party registration. New York City Mayor Michael Bloomberg (R/I) won reelection by just four points despite being the incumbent and spending $100 million on his campaign.
In addition to calling for the government to hold the line on state spending, Unshackle Upstate has focused attention on tax relief and reducing the cost of energy, among other priorities.
“New York State has become the Imelda Marcos of state programs, and it’s simply not affordable anymore,” Sampson said, referring to the widow of the former president of the Philippines, whose lavish spending on hundreds of gowns and thousands of shoes made her a focal point of derision for her husband’s opponents.
Property Tax Concerns
Sampson said out-of-control property taxes are the number one issue facing the state, and reforming the property tax system is necessary to reduce the cost of doing business.
In addition, Unshackle Upstate believes New York must institute a sound energy policy. The average price of electricity is 13 cents per kilowatt hour, second-highest in the United States. Unshackle Upstate supports the renewal of Article X, the power plant siting law, which Sampson said would jump-start construction of new power plants, increase energy supply, and lower costs.
Sampson also said the state needs to use natural gas reserves found in Marcellus shale in Upstate, but efforts to do so have been blocked by state legislators in New York City who oppose it on environmental grounds.
“Energy is a large part of why New York isn’t competitive,” Sampson said.
Unshackle Upstate has been using new media, such as Facebook, YouTube and Twitter, to spread its message and keep supporters informed. Its Facebook site provides updates of the latest goings-on in the legislature and affords a platform for fans to vent their anger at Albany’s policies.
The 2008 presidential elections proved social media works, Sampson says, and helps organizations such as Unshackle Upstate get their message out. He said Unshackle Upstate’s social media campaign has helped fill a void by providing young New Yorkers with information and ways to become engaged in the cause, such as the forming of Unshackle groups on campuses across the state.
Sampson said Unshackle Upstate is gearing up for the 2010 elections, when the governor and all members of the State Senate and Assembly will be on the ballot. The group plans to develop report cards on lawmakers, mobilize voters, and encourage citizens to run for office and work to defeat those who do not listen to the taxpayers.
“Incumbents are seeing the power of the grassroots. Taxpayers are demanding more accountability, more for their tax dollar,” Sampson said.
Nick Baker ([email protected]) writes from Washington, DC.