ALBANY — Would New York be better off if it were divided into two states, like the Dakotas and Carolinas, with a north and south separated politically, legally and economically?
Several upstate and western New York legislators have posed this controversial and perennial question anew in Albany this year and they’re taking radical steps to answer it by introducing a flurry of legislation.
State Senator Joseph Robach, R-Rochester, and Assemblyman Stephen Hawley, R-Batavia, are advancing a non-binding referendum to see what voters think. The bill mirrors previous ones in 2009 and 2013.
Last week, Senator Jim Tedisco, R-Glenville, told The Daily Gazette in an Op-Ed that upstate residents and downstate residents have been living separate lives for years, and that the question of remaining one state should be put to voters.
“Unfortunately, upstate New York has been an afterthought of the downstate political establishment for a long time. We are like a ‘flyover state’ to them,” Tedisco wrote.
In an interview with the Palladium Times, Will Barclay, R-Pulaski, fully sympathized with the frustration of his colleagues, but counseled that although the issue is interesting theoretically, dividing New York is not a realistic solution legally or practically.
This sense of being divided, he said, is “amplified when people feel like their voices aren’t being heard.”
The policy initiatives of Gov. Andrew Cuomo and the Democratic Party majorities in the Senate and Assembly, “drive downstate but depress upstate,” Barclay said, “making us uncompetitive in comparison to neighboring states.”
The ban on hydrofracking is a good example of policies that are making the disparity more acute, he said.
“We import natural gas from Pennsylvania,” he noted.
Other examples are the minimum wage laws and the New York Paid Family Leave Act, both of which “sound great in a vacuum but harm small businesses,” Barclay said.
His position on the upstate versus downstate issue is generally consistent with that of “Unshackle Upstate,” he said, which calls itself a non-partisan, pro-taxpayer, pro-economic growth and pro-upstate education and advocacy coalition of businesses and trade organizations.
Michael Kracker, Unshackle Upstate executive director, told The Palladium Times that, "New York is already a tale of two economies. While the downstate economy booms, Upstate communities continue to struggle and experience significant population loss. We call on every elected official - regardless of location or political affiliation - to join us in our efforts to get the Upstate economy growing.”
State Senator Patty Richie, R-Heuvelton, said Albany needs to "address regional differences when it comes to policy.”
“In many cases our priorities are clearly not aligned,” Ritchie said. “Whether it be bills aimed at limiting Second Amendment rights or spending plans that take more from our hardworking taxpayers, many in the New York City voting block ignore the needs of the rural communities that make-up the bulk of upstate. By working together, for each other, we can ensure New York State is a place everyone is proud to call home.”
Senator Daphne Jordan, R-Halfmoon, wants to form a working group to study whether upstate and downstate should split.
“Whether it’s the issue of gun control, the DREAM Act, taxes and spending, parity in school or infrastructure funding, or even the choice for governor, the deepening divide -- cultural, economic and political -- between upstate and downstate has grown more pronounced every year,” Jordan said in a statement released last week.
Jordan’s bill invited the scorn of the governor’s office, which characterized it as "the Godzilla of pandering."
"This divisive and unserious press release isn't worth the paper it's printed on,” Cuomo spokesman Rich Azzopardi said.
In 2009, the Rockefeller Institute of Government published an exhaustive study that found upstate gets more from New York State than it gives in tax revenue, and vice-versa for downstate. The takeaway for many lawmakers and government officials was that upstate couldn’t function without the wealth of downstate.
The study confirmed findings of a 2004 report by the Public Policy Institute of New York State, which called upstate secession “impossible” and “destructive,” but urged some kind of restructuring or risk “smothering [the upstate] economy."
Two western New York legislators have more ambitious proposals.
Senator Robert Ortt, R-Lockport, wants to change the way New York elects its governor by establishing a county representation system, similar in function to an electoral college.
Assemblyman David DiPietro, R-East Aurora, proposed a constitutional amendment to divide the state into three autonomous regions—the New Amsterdam region (upstate and western New York); the New York Region (New York City and several contiguous counties); and the Montauk Region (Long Island).
But that’s not all: DiPietro also envisions a governor and body of legislators for each region, which will have their own departments and agencies, as well as courts and prisons, all operating free and independent of a vestigial statewide executive, denuded of power. The only shared obligation among the regions will be a sales tax.