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The Upstate-Downstate Debate

by Kevin Strouse and Mark Berkey-Gerard, Dec 04, 2000

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Every year since 1913, the town of Boiceville, New York has held a ceremony to recognize the families who were forced off their land to make way for a reservoir for New York City. Boiceville was not the only upstate town that was displaced for the sake of the city's drinking water. Hundreds of homes, churches, schools and graveyards still rest at the bottom of man-made lakes and reservoirs.

And the people who live there have not forgotten the sacrifices they made for their downstate neighbor. In part, this is because the upstate-downstate battles over land and water continue today. The most recent example is the state's proposal for roads and development along the Kensico Reservoir in Westchester County.

Governor George Pataki says the area around Kensico must be developed so that it will create jobs. City politicians oppose the plans in order to preserve the purity of the water and have called the construction plans ill conceived.

This is just the latest round in a long struggle between New York City and the upstate counties. It is a battle of geography, economics, culture, as well as politics.

"Like a massive geological fault, the rivalry between these two sections has ruptured state unity for centuries," wrote historian David Maldwyn Ellis in his book New York State and City.

But the upstate-downstate tension is more than just a feud between rural Republicans and urban Democrats. (State Assemblyman John Ravitz attests to what it is like to be a downstate Republican in the midst of this fray)

The divide is built into the state Constitution -- affecting how laws are made, how tax revenue is spent, and how the city can govern. As powerful as New York City is, issues like the commuter tax, rent control, prison construction, and public transit still fall under Albany's control.

Add in a struggling upstate economy and politicians feeding upstate-downstate stereotypes for their own gain, and the long-running battle makes for a messy way to run government.

WHO'S RULING WHOM?

Four years ago, the state passed a law to increase pay for police, firefighters, and other city workers in New York. Mayor Giuliani challenged the law in court, and won because the pay raise violated a "home rule" provision in the state Constitution.

Home rule gives local governments the authority to make and change laws relating to "property, affairs, or government" as well as jurisdiction over local matters such as health, safety, and the general well being of citizen. Home rule only applies when the issue only affects local residents.

In this case, the court ruled that the pay increases for city workers needed to have City Council approval, (which it didn't) and so it was invalidated.

But it's not always so simple.

Home rule does not always provide the city with protection against interference by the state legislature. The New York State courts have ruled that if an issue is a substantial "matter of state concern," then the state still has jurisdiction.

Home rule also does not apply to local finances. Local governments are still dependent on the legislature for the power to tax, and so issues like spending, borrowing, and lending fall under strict state restrictions.

That is how New York City lost more than $360 million in revenue per year when the state successfully repealed the city's commuter tax in 1999. The mayor argued against the repeal on the same grounds of home rule. This time, the courts disagreed because the tax affected New York citizens living outside the city.

The ruling was especially contentious because, as the city explained in its lawsuit, the repeal seemed to come about for political reasons. To gain support for their candidates in a special election for state senator in the suburbs, Democrats and Republicans in Albany both voted against the commuter tax.

In the end, these types of debates over who has ultimate authority often end up in politically charged court cases.

HISTORY OF NEW YORK'S CIVIL WAR

Although the current home rule provision was adopted in 1963 (after much fighting between city and state government), the divide between upstate and downstate can be traced back to the beginning of the state.

In the early 1700's, upstate farmers and New York City merchants debated taxes and trade regulations that were in their own interests. As New York City grew as a cultural and economic power, the mutual disregard between the geographic areas and governmental bodies of the state and city increased.

Issues of immigration and race are also factors. Historically, upstaters have tended to be white, native-born, and Protestant; New York City residents are often descendents of immigrants, Jewish and Catholic. An upstate delegate to the 1894 Constitutional convention called New York City "a sewer of ignorance and corruption flowing in from foreign lands." Today, the city is home to over 80 percent of the states African-Americans and Jews, and over 90 percent of its Spanish-speaking and Asian population.

But much of the battle is over money and power, and many city politicians have felt that the state government sucks up the city's wealth.

George Washington Plunkitt, a turn of the century Tammany Hall district lea der once railed, "in this state the Republican government makes no pretense at all. It says right out in the open: `New York is a nice, big, fat goose. Come along with your carving knives and have a slice.'"

With this history, it is no wonder legislative issues have divided the city and the state again and again.

TALE OF TWO ECONOMIES

In the midst of the recent economic boom, many upstate counties have not enjoyed the same sort of success as New York City.

According to a recent study that tracked job growth from 1995-1999, New York has the second highest average wage among all states. That growth, however, has been primarily concentrated in the downstate region. If upstate was a separate state, its job growth for the 1995-99 period would have ranked second to last among all states.

There is also a prevailing upstate sentiment that the state government favors New York City by providing its residents with a disproportionate amount of tax dollars to support social programs.

"There's a myth, perpetuated by upstate newspapers, that New York City is draining money out of the state treasury," said Assemblyman Edward C. Sullivan.

But statistics point otherwise. The Center for Governmental Research released a recent report that showed that New York City "contributes significantly more in revenue than it receives in state funds."

Upstate areas receive $1.41 in state aid for every tax dollar contributed, while New York City breaks even, the report states. Likewise, the upstate area, with the exception of Rochester County, receives much more than their share of state spending.

IN THE SHADOW OF THE "GREATEST CITY IN THE WORLD"

Most states encounter political tension between urban and rural areas. But in New York, it is compounded by the fact that the city has more in common with world cities like London, Tokyo, or Paris, than to Buffalo or Albany.

When people elsewhere in the world think of New York, they think of the Statue of Liberty, the Empire State Building, Wall Street and Times Square. They think city, not state.

But in comparison to upstate and the suburbs, New York City with its 7.4 million residents has a large chunk, but not a majority, of the state's population. The upstate population is approximately 7 million and the suburban population is 3.7 million.

On Election Day, New York City voters don't carry as much clout as they might think. In general elections, upstate voters represent about 45 percent of the vote, while the city only carries about 30 percent, with the suburbs taking the remaining 25 percent.

But even so, some upstate New Yorkers are convinced that the state government only serves the interests of the city. Some have gone as far as to call for the sucession of upstate New York to create the 51st state.

And politicians often feed the urban-versus-rural stereotypes. Former Mayor Ed Koch made fun of upstate life with his comments about pick-up trucks, women in "gingham dresses" and men in Sears's suits. In 1998, when Governor Pataki and Senator D'Amato faced re-election challenges from city Democrats, the GOP ran ads showing sharks swimming out of the city to devour the rest of the state.

CRITICAL ISSUES IN THE UPSTATE-DOWNSTATE DEBATE:

1. WHO CONTROLS RENT CONTROL?
Each time rent control is set to expire, the old upstate and downstate tension resurfaces.

Today, it is state law, not city law, that provides limits on how much landlords can charge for rent in lower and middle class apartments. In a city with over 1 million apartments under rent protection, more than half of all apartments in the city, it is almost entirely a New York City concern.

So why does the New York State Legislature control rent regulations?

"Local government powers have to be given from the state," said Michael Schill, Professor of Law and Urban Planning at New York University. Rent control remains, in the words of the state constitution, "a significant matter of state concern" that the state does not wish to give up. Schill added that "the issue is not unique to New York." Cities like Boston and Los Angeles have faced similar battles with state government.

In 1997, the State Assembly and Governor Pataki vowed to end rent controls on apartments, city tenant advocates responded and along with support from Democrats were able to muster enough power to extended rent protections for six more years. At one point, the issue was consuming so much of the state government's time that the Buffalo News declared "upstate legislators should band together and insist that such a regional issue be decided separately from those that affect the whole state."

2. MURKY WATERS
Over the past two years, the state government has considered a proposal to widen roads abutting the Kensico Reservoir in Westchester County. The problem is that the reservoir provides drinking water for about 9 million people in the New York City area. City officials fear that the proposed development would increase run-off and the amount of pollutants that go into the water, and mean the city would have to build a filtration system that could cost upwards of six million dollars.

The state government and the state Department of Transportation have remained steadfast in their position that highway improvements are necessary. In January, City Council passed a resolution calling on the state to stop the plans for expansion and City Comptroller Alan Hevesi sent a letter to Pataki urging him to reduce the project's size.

Meanwhile, the issue is still sitting in Albany, with the governor and Department of Transportation yet to weigh in.

3. PRISONS--"BUILD IT AND THEY WILL COME"
According to a recent study, New York State spends more than $2 billion a year to operate its prisons. With their struggling economy, upstate towns and politicians lobby hard for prisons to be built in their areas. They've proved successful. Two-thirds of the prison facilities are located three hours or more from New York City. Between 1983-1994, 28 of the 29 prisons authorized for construction were built upstate. One town in particular, Dannemora, now has more inmates than inhabitants.

The upstate-downstate debate lies in the fact that 70 percent of the state's prisoners come from New York City, many from low-income neighborhoods of color. The U.S. Census Bureau records inmates as residents of the area where the prisons are located, not as members of the neighborhood where they reside.

This means less federal and state aid, as well as less political representation for the New York City neighborhoods that lose over 66,000 residents a year to Republican districts upstate. The state's prison policies, in effect, transfer public funds and electoral influence from urban neighborhoods of color to white, rural upstate areas.

4. SUBWAYS VS. HIGHWAYS
This past Election Day proved once again that upstaters and downstaters have different political interests.

On the vote over the Transportation Bond Act, which would have increased the state's debt to pay for upgrading highways upstate and improving New York City's subway system, 72 percent of people in New York City approved the measure. In upstate New York, however, 64 percent who cast ballots voted against the act.

The upstate vote made the difference, and the proposition failed by a vote of 53 to 47 percent. Now the city will have to figure out another way to fund mass transit improvements.

IS THERE ANY HOPE?

This year, Hillary Clinton drew enough support from both upstate and downstate voters to win the U.S. Senate seat. It's been noted that her success came in part because she was able to gather enough support from urban areas upstate, like Rochester and Buffalo, to combine with her strong showing in New York City.

Clinton garnered this support by claiming that her priority was to promote economic prosperity throughout the entire state by using such methods as tax credits for small businesses. This, she hopes, will "build one great New York State. A New York where every region, every community and every New Yorker can take part in our new economy."

Boosting both the upstate and downstate economies may be the best way to end upstate-downstate gridlock. But as the real work begins for Senator-elect Clinton, she may find that her priority of helping the upstate economy conflicts with another of her favorite issues, the environment.

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Last Updated (Mar 14, 2013)