Guest post by Stuart Anderson of Otego, NY
New York State has a long history of problems with money—high income taxes, high property taxes, and a high lifestyle in Albany that seems to attract lots of politicians with high, even Presidential, aspirations. Over the decades, our politicians have managed to suck up enormous amounts of wealth from businesses and individuals, and redistribute it in ways that ensure their continued political employment. The Empire runs on MONEY. Anyone not living under a rock in New York State should, if they reflect upon it, be able to figure out how the fracking debate is going to play out over the next few months in Albany.
Governor Cuomo is first and foremost a politician, and one defining characteristic of a politician is the ability to find the opportunities hidden in every dilemma and disaster that befalls the state. As fracking is arguably the biggest, most contentious, and potentially most lucrative event to vex voters in at least a generation, it presents the biggest political opportunities that our ambitious leader is likely to stumble across in his lifetime. How can Andrew Cuomo wring the most political capital out of the fracking debate? What has happened so far?
First, Cuomo has appeared to remain wisely above the fray. He does not want to be perceived as openly supportive of Big Industry over Little People, but he does not want to scare away the Big Money that Big Industry can provide; it’s a fine line to walk, as he must be careful to say nothing that he’ll have to retract later. Consequently, while the pro- and anti-drilling forces muster their troops, fund their campaigns, and draw up the battle lines, Cuomo has remained deferential—he posits that he’ll do what’s right according to the scientific evidence as interpreted by the State Department of Environmental Conservation, and he’s given a wink and a nod toward those annoyingly vocal anti-drilling demonstrators by failing to include well inspection and oversight costs in his proposed 2013 budget. (Politicians know the value of a head-fake.)
Second, Cuomo has deftly employed the “divide and conquer” tactic. His henchmen in the Department of Environmental Conservation (DEC) have banned fracking in the two largest drinking water sources in the state—it’s a stroke of genius that offends only a tiny minority of landowners, mostly on the very fringes of the Marcellus shale region. The watershed ban severely weakens the anti-drillers by letting a large majority of the wealthiest New Yorkers safely ignore the whole issue because their water supply remains safe. Downstaters with little or nothing to gain personally from fracking might have been very supportive of Upstate anti-drilling groups if the watershed ban had not been enacted—now safely vaccinated, they can be manipulated to support drilling in the vast wilderness beyond the reservoirs.
Third, Cuomo has demonstrated to the Little People in the state’s potential fracking zones that our state government is in dire financial straits. He’s re-jiggered the school aid formula to take away funding from the neediest districts (out in the wilderness) and made those monies available to districts across the state (even the wealthy districts) on a competitive basis…how can a poor rural district with a meager slate of course offerings compete on the basis of academic achievement with the likes of Briarcliff Manor and Katonah and Northport? Cuomo has again curried favor Downstate at the expense of Upstate. But much more importantly, he has set the stage for his next act in the gas opera. With our small rural schools facing cut-to-the-bone austerity next fall and literal bankruptcy in 2013, will taxpayers have any choice but to let the frackers have their way? Can we turn away “free money” when faced with dire FINANCIAL NECESSITY?
Now that the Gov has us tied over a barrel, what should we expect? If you’re not scared, you haven’t been paying attention. But fear not! Andrew Cuomo is going to save us all! In a lightning series of moves, his DEC will conclude that drilling and fracking can be done safely, provided the State siphons off enough of the proceeds to fund all the necessary costs of oversight, testing, monitoring, etc., etc. In a legislative flash, the State will institute a wellhead tax, a veritable fountain of money that will flow to the general fund, thereby allowing politicians of all stripes to disperse the largess to their constituents, including those very needy school districts that were teetering on the brink of insolvency. The MONEY from fracking will solve all of Andrew Cuomo’s immediate problems—the budget will return to balance, the schools will stay open and maybe even offer French along with Spanish, and those annoying whiners that want clean water and air will be so fed up that they’ll move away and bother someone else. And by the time the fracking chickens come home to roost, Andy will be packing up to move to Washington, and drilling the Marcellus will be little more than a fond memory of an opportunity well played.
Of course the best laid plans, even of politicians, sometimes get derailed, and Andrew Cuomo’s number one worry right now has to be Home Rule. Within the next few months or so, the courts will decide which body of law takes precedence: the zoning laws that give localities the right to control what goes on in their neighborhoods, or the DEC’s exclusive right to regulate the oil and gas mining industries. Legal scholars generally agree that in New York the right to zone is sacrosanct; but historians can cite innumerable cases where MONEY has effectively trumped mere legal formalities, especially when that MONEY is buttressed with arguments of FINANCIAL NECESSITY. Being a practical man, Governor Cuomo probably hasn’t ordered new luggage yet, but I bet he’s been looking at the brochures.
So if you don’t feel like consigning our children to a developing nation school system, and you can’t afford to move, what can you do? SPEAK UP! Go to your town board meeting and let them know how you feel. Email or call your state Senator http://www.nysenate.gov/senators and tell them to support Senator Seward’s Home Rule bill. Call or email the Governor http://www.governor.ny.gov/contact/GovernorContactForm.php and tell him to stop playing games with our children’s education. If you don’t get off the barrel, you’re in for a real fracking.