February 07, 2011
By: by Rex Smith, Editor, Times Union
My friend the political scientist defines politics as the authoritative allocation of scarce resources.
Since I prefer English, I'd say that while it's politics that fixes how our tax dollars are spent, it's more broadly about priority-setting. In this country, that political task falls into the hands of people we elect.
Because of politics, we get an income tax break for what we pay in mortgage interest, since we've decided that home ownership is good. Politics mandated that we lay aside money to take care of us as we age (Social Security, Medicare); politics decided tobacco is so bad for us that we should discourage its use (cigarette taxes); politics pushed down the death toll on highways (speed limits, seat belt laws, safety standards for cars).
So when I tell you that Andrew Cuomo is a terrific politician, I'm not saying that he knows how to get elected. That has turned out to be true, though even great politicians lose and mediocre ones win, often because of other factors, like campaign cash or fortuitously incompetent opponents and predecessors.
No, when I talk about our new governor's political skills, what you should think about is his ability to align forces so he's in a position to set priorities. To pick up on my friend's wording, Cuomo knows that our resources are scarce -- the state faces a $10 billion gap between expected revenues and the spending set in law -- and he aims to be able to allocate those resources where he wants.
In that regard, most of the smart money on the table so far is bet on Cuomo. His popularity is astronomically high, even compared to the typical honeymoon that voters give newly installed officials. He exudes the personal discipline that eluded his two immediate predecessors and a work ethic that his father's successor couldn't imagine. He boasts support from all corners, from his own Democratic Party's structure to the Conservative Party and the Republicans who lead the state Senate. (Except, that is, for Long Island's GOP senators, who have just announced that cutting school aid is fine, except in their own districts. Gee, anybody here see that coming?)
Now, consider this: Scarcity can't be an excuse for government to step away from its appropriate leadership role. Just because the state doesn't have enough money to do all it wants to do doesn't mean it can afford to skip on investments that may assure its future. The chance for long-term gain can present choices that seem shaky just now.
Take, for example, the state's 1993 designation of a Center for Advanced Technology at the University at Albany. That was backed up four years later with the allocation of $7.5 million in state funds to support UAlbany's research into nanotechnology. The money was largely controlled by a young physics professor named Alain Kaloyeros. In 2001, the state designated UAlbany as a Center of Excellence in nanotechnology, with $50 million in state funds matched by $100 million in money from IBM.
That was serious money, and it set up UAlbany as a leader in research on 300 mm wafers, which had recently become the standard in the computer chip manufacturing industry. (Chips, the building blocks of electronic technology, are manufactured on wafers; the bigger the wafers, the more cheaply chips can be made.)
UAlbany's research center led private industry to invest in the Capital Region, which, in turn, led to more state investment. Sematech, the international consortium of chip manufacturers, began moving to Albany from Austin, Texas, in 2002, Later that year, Tokyo Electron built a facility at the UAlbany campus. Kaloyeros now leads a campus with 2,500 workers on site. Several miles north, GlobalFoundries, lured by the proximity to research centers and vendors, has launched the largest construction project in the Western Hemisphere: a $4.6 billion chip fabrication plant, which will provide at least 1,200 jobs.
And there's little doubt our tech sector will continue to grow. That's why, even in the face of looming state work force downsizing, this community is the bright spot in an otherwise bleak upstate economy. It may well be in the next generation of chip fabrication that the Capital Region's growth will be secured.
As the governor weighs how to use his political power, there's an example in the smart allocation of public dollars that began here almost two decades ago, setting the stage for huge private-sector investment. The governor back then, of course, was a fellow named Cuomo. It seems he was a good politician, too.