By Stuart Anderson
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.
For decades our politicians have sucked up enormous wealth from businesses and individuals, and redistributed it in ways that ensure their continued political employment.
The Empire runs on money, and recognizing this fact, it should be simple to figure out how the fracking debate is going to play out over the next few months in Albany.
Gov. Andrew Cuomo is first and foremost a politician. A true politician seeks out the opportunities hidden within every dilemma and disaster that affects 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 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 has been careful not to be 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, being 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, oblivious to the fact that the scientific experts will produce a pile of facts that, in and of themselves, don't point towards right and wrong but simply define potential consequences of a range of possible actions. The ultimate decisions will be political. Cuomo has given a wink and a nod to the annoyingly vocal anti-drilling demonstrators by failing to include well inspection and oversight costs in his proposed 2013 budget, as if to imply that drilling is not on his horizon. Politicians know the value of a head-fake.
Second, Cuomo has deftly employed the divide-and-conquer tactic. His DEC henchmen 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 empty 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 full-blown 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 (even if that necessity is of the Governor's own making)?
Now that Cuomo has us tied over a barrel, what should we expect? If you live on the poor side of the Catskills and you're not scared, you haven't been paying attention. But fear not! 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 (lubricated by vast new revenues), 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 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 who 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.
Unless, of course, you happen to live in the freshly fracked region--your time for fond memories will be long past.
But the best laid plans, even of politicians, sometimes get derailed, and Cuomo's No. 1 worry right now has to be Home Rule. Twice in recent days, the courts have sided with local governments in cases that pitted the zoning laws that give localities the right to control what goes on in their neighborhoods, against the DEC's exclusive right to regulate the oil- and gas-drilling industries. These victories for the anti-drillers are sweet, but few doubt that they will be challenged; historians can cite innumerable cases where money has effectively trumped mere legal formalities, especially when that money is buttressed with arguments of dire financial necessity. Tilting the game in Cuomo's favor is the knowledge that in his next job at 1600 Pennsylvania Ave., he'll be making appointments to the Federal courts (a consideration that no upstanding New York judge would entertain, I assure you.)
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 and tell them to support Sen. James Seward's home-rule bill. Call or email Gov. Cuomo 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.
Stuart Anderson is a resident of Otego.