Where you stand depends on where you sit

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Some years ago, New York’s Senate Republicans distributed a card that featured photos of their members on one side and those of the Senate Dems (labeled New Senate Majority) on the other, each picture placed by district. We didn’t call them infographics then, but it remains one of the most effective pieces of campaign literature I’ve seen.

The map of Senate Dems demonstrates that nearly every member of the Democratic Caucus in the state Senate hailed from downstate and only a handful of members—5 at that time—represented upstate districts.

If you don’t follow this particular sport, here’s the current score: The New York State Senate has 63 members, with Republicans in 32 seats and Democrats in 31. Republicans control 33 votes, as a renegade New York City Democrat, Simcha Felder, caucuses with them. But their margin doesn’t get much thinner. If they lose two seats, they lose control. For more on the contest, click here.

If we recreated the New Senate Majority map today, it would look much like what you see. Twenty-three Senate Democrats represent parts of New York City. Two represent Long Island. Four hail from Westchester/Rockland/Putnam. Just three Senate Democrats live north of the Mario Cuomo Bridge—Neil Breslin, David Valesky and Timothy Kennedy.

Should we care? Most upstate voters will vote according to their tribal identity. But at some level party affiliation loses meaning and other considerations come into play. Major policy conflicts dominate the national debate—Is health care cost or health care access more important? Should addressing climate change be our top priority or should we focus on low cost energy? Do we want to be an open society that welcomes immigrants or is our first obligation to current citizens? Are we better off leaving the economy to markets or do we believe that are they wholly captured by the rich? Can government be trusted to act in the general interest or do we think that government spends too much and accomplishes too little, feeding more bureaucrats than citizens?

At the other extreme, red/blue labels on local government services can seem silly. Do Democrats plow snow from the left? Is there a Republican plan for sewer maintenance?

State policy is caught in the middle. Some issues do split on ideological lines. Fracking, gun control, criminal justice, environmental policy and health care all carry a whiff of ideology.

Yet many other issues are driven by geography, particularly when your state includes a world class city with world class assets and needs. How much should state taxpayers spend on the Metropolitan Transit Authority?

I like the subway as much as the next guy—when I’m in New York. What share of my tax dollars do I want devoted to the $17 billion-plus Second Avenue line or the $11 billion-plus Long Island Railroad connection to Grand Central? What about the $4 billion reconstruction of the bridge formerly known as the Tappan Zee (now the Mario Cuomo)? Should general tax revenue pick up part of the tab or should it be paid for solely by users?

Let’s turn the tables. If you live in Queens, how excited are you about spending $55 million to demolish Rochester’s Midtown Plaza? Or supporting the Buffalo Billion? If you live in Manhattan and only leave New York City by plane, do you really care about Taughannock Falls State Park near Ithaca? Or SUNY Fredonia?

I don’t have good answers for these questions. New York City is the engine of the state economy and our “front door” to global commerce. Upstate needs a healthy Manhattan. Lots of downstate voters do care about state parks and the Erie Canal. Upstate and downstate do have different needs and values, however.

And Upstate New York, let me tell you a secret: Taxpayers downstate send a whole lot more money to Albany than they get back. Folks who want upstate to secede from the state would have to dig deep to pay for current services. I led two analyses of this issue at the Center for Governmental Research back in the 1990s. The most recent figures come from a study completed by the Rockefeller Institute of Government in 2011. See the report here. By Rockefeller’s reckoning, upstate contributed 24 percent of state revenue but received 35 percent of state spending.

A New York State Legislature wholly controlled by downstate interests won’t stop sending education aid Upstate or close the state parks. But the “where you stand depends on where you sit” aphorism holds a lot of truth. Complete control of the NYS Legislature by downstate reps will change things over time. Party aside, upstate has a lot at stake in this election.

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