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Governor Cuomo brought a multi-media presentation about his tax-cutting plan to Plattsburgh. Photo: Brian Mann, NCPR
Governor Cuomo brought a multi-media presentation about his tax-cutting plan to Plattsburgh. Photo: Brian Mann, NCPR

Cuomo says tax-free college zones an economic "game changer"

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Governor Andrew Cuomo barnstormed across Upstate New York yesterday, trying to build political support for a new network of tax-free zones around many of the state's colleges and universities.

At least eight SUNY campuses in the North Country would be eligible for the program, from community colleges in Glens Falls and Saranac Lake to larger campuses in Plattsburgh and Canton.

One of the governor's first stops was at the SUNY campus in Plattsburgh, where he argued that this program could be a 'game changer' for a regional economy that has been struggling for decades.

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Brian Mann
Adirondack Bureau Chief

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We have to admit the depth of the economic problem in Upstate New York. Upstate New York has been struggling for thirty, forty years. - Gov. Andrew Cuomo
Governor Andrew Cuomo makes the case for this big tax-cutting push around college campuses with two big arguments.  First, the economy in parts of the state like the North Country and the Adirondacks desperately needs some new spark.  Here he is speaking yesterday morning on the campus of SUNY Plattsburgh.

"We have to admit the depth of the economic problem in Upstate New York.  It has nothing to do with the most recent economic downturn.  This is not about 2007.  Upstate New York has been struggling for thirty, forty years."

Governor Cuomo argues that a new spark is needed to revive an Upstate economy that has flagged for decades.  Photo: Brian Mann, NCPR
Governor Cuomo argues that a new spark is needed to revive an Upstate economy that has flagged for decades. Photo: Brian Mann, NCPR
Cuomo then makes the case that New York is actually innovating and churning out cool, marketable new ideas, but he’s convinced the state is then driving those start-up businesses away.

"What happens is we lose 75% of them at the end of the first year.  Why?  Because they're new businesses and they decide that they don't want to say in the state of New York because we have the anti-business reputation. So they move to a low-tax, no-tax state."

Details are still being hashed out in Albany.  But in his speech in Plattsburgh, Cuomo tried to make the case that this program will sidestep the kind of bureaucracy and red-tape that has hampered economic development zone programs in New York in the past.

"What is tax free mean?  It means tax free.  It means exactly what the words suggest.  No political mumbo-jumbo.  No businesses, tax, no sales tax, no property tax, no franchise fee, no income tax - period."

But in interviews after his speech, Governor Cuomo acknowledged that there will, in fact, be some limitations on the tax-free idea. 

He says local governments will get to decide whether property tax breaks are offered to businesses that locate near campuses on private land.

Businesses on "private land would either be paying property taxes or there would have to be a PILOT [payment in lieu of taxes] that's worked out between the state university and the locality to pay the property taxes," Cuomo said.

While the details are still fuzzy, North Country higher education leaders moved quickly to embrace the governor’s plan.  John Ettling is president of SUNY Plattsburgh.

Tony Collins. Source: Clarkson University
Tony Collins. Source: Clarkson University
"Let us use our facilities and the land surrounding our campus to promote economic development," Ettling urged.

The governor’s plan also allows private universities to create tax-free programs around their campuses.  Clarkson president Tony Collins says the program would be a long-term boon to communities like Potsdam.

At least eight SUNY schools and more private schools could be eligible for the tax-free zone program.  NCPR file image
At least eight SUNY schools and more private schools could be eligible for the tax-free zone program. NCPR file image
"Sure, at the very, very local levels there would be questions," he acknowledged.  "'Gosh, no taxes?  This person gets taxed and that [person] doesn't?'  But take it to the next level.  This attracts businesses like we've had no opportunity to attract them and retain them in this state ever before."

The governor clearly still has work to do to get the legislature on board with this idea – and not much time to get the new initiative approved with the clock ticking down on the session in Albany. 

At his speech yesterday, he made the case that action on this idea is needed now.

"This proposal is long overdue.  I think we should have done this twenty or thirty years ago," Cuomo said.

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