- Associated Press - Wednesday, August 3, 2016

ALBANY, N.Y. (AP) - New York lawmakers sharply criticized Gov. Andrew Cuomo’s signature jobs programs Wednesday following multiple reports showing lackluster results - prompting a defiant response from the Democrat’s top economic development official.

Lawmakers from both parties called for changes to programs like Start-Up NY, as well as greater transparency, during a legislative hearing focusing on the state’s efforts to generate jobs and spur entrepreneurship.

Start-Up created tax-free enterprise zones at colleges and universities in a bid to attract entrepreneurs. A report quietly released by his administration last month - three months after it was due - showed it has created only 408 jobs since its launch in 2013, despite $53 million in television and radio ads to promote it.

“I’m not seeing a whole lot of return on investment,” said Assemblywoman Addie Russell, a Jefferson County Democrat who called for “a serious rethinking of how this program is managed and run.”

Lawmakers also pointed to a recent audit that found Empire State Development Corp., the state’s main economic development agency, cannot verify that companies receiving millions of dollars in tax credits through the Excelsior jobs program are meeting their obligations. The report also found that the corporation lowered job creation goals after companies failed to meet expectations and didn’t verify if jobs were full time or part time.

Empire State Development President Howard Zemsky pushed back, questioning the audit’s fairness and urging patience when it comes to Start-Up NY. He noted that overall, the state’s economy is up, and dismissed some of the criticism as short-sighted and politically motivated.

“I’m not in the grin-and-bear it mode on this,” he told reporters after his two-hour-plus testimony in front of the committee. “We’ve spent way too much time and have achieved way too much success and results to go through the grandstanding and the politicization of some of this.”

The criticism wasn’t limited to lawmakers. Leaders from both the left-leaning Fiscal Policy Institute as well as the conservative Empire Center for Public Policy criticized the state’s approach to economic development, and Start-Up specifically, as ineffective and wasteful.

“Start-Up NY is an economic development tactic presented as grand strategy, surrounded by excessive expectations created by promotional hype,” said Empire Center President E.J. McMahon.

The administration itself has seemingly lowered its expectations. While Cuomo referred to it as a “game changer” and a “major transformation” in 2013, Zemsky on Wednesday called Start-Up “a very small piece of the puzzle” of the state’s overall efforts.

The modest performance of Start-Up has been a sore spot for Cuomo’s administration, which released the most recent report on its results late on the Friday before three-day Fourth of July weekend, and many of the questions appeared to irritate Zemsky, who said he wanted to dispel the “emotion” and “anger” that he said was associated with the criticism.

“I would be willing to subject myself to any sort of medieval torture to make the anger go away,” Zemsky told them.

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