Albany Notebook: Clock is ticking on hiring goal at Tesla factory

Joe Mahoney 

Regardless of where one lives in the state, all New Yorkers have a stake in the outcome of the Cuomo administration's huge investment of public funds at the Riverbend plant in Buffalo.

Part of the "Buffalo Billion" project, it is now the site of a Tesla factory producing solar tiles and charging stations for Tesla products. The Cuomo administration, in one of its biggest upstate economic development plays to date, has invested more than $750 million there in hopes of creating hundreds of high-tech jobs and invigorating the economy of western New York.

A crucial date for the company is April 30. Its pact with the state calls for Tesla to have a payroll of 1,460 employees by then. If Tesla comes up short, the state could "claw back" $41.2 million of the state investment.

At a Feb. 13 hearing on the state budget, Assemblyman Robin Schimminger, D-Kenmore, asked Eric Gertler, chief executive officer at Empire State Development, for a snapshot on where things stand. And, Schimminger also asked: "Will you enforce this clawback?"

Gertler said the state is poised to do that, but he didn't rule out the possibility Tesla will reach the employment goal.

"If by April 30, they do not reach the 1,460 jobs, then as you pointed out, we're going to move to enforce that penalty," Gertler said.

Gertler had visited Riverbend the previous week. If he knows what the current employment level is, he wasn't ready to cough up the information that day — not before lawmakers, and not when reporters caught up to him after he got off the hot seat.

Gertler did acknowledge that April 30 will be a critical day for Tesla, the firm headed by green energy mogul Elon Musk. "The good thing about this is that there is a deadline," he told reporters. "There is a a number they need to reach. We can have that conversation in May (regarding the financial penalty). They need to get to 1,460 jobs."

EYE ON WATCHDOG

The state Joint Commission on Public Ethics is one of the ethics watchdogs in Albany. But some of the commission's critics have charged it is joined at the hip with the Cuomo administration, preventing it from being effective when allies of the governor deserve close scrutiny.

Sen. James Skoufis, D-Cornwall, is the chairman of the Senate Investigations and Government Operations Committee.

"I believe there is an appetite to see how we can reform JCOPE to see that it's doing its job as an ethics watchdog, and is accountable, and isn't subject to political interference," Skoufis, referring to the Democrats who control the Senate, told me Thursday, Feb. 13, as we strode out of the Legislative Office Building.

"Short of that, if we can't find a way to put those guard rails up, it's my personal opinion we should consider scrapping JCOPE and starting over," he said. He said concerns about JCOPE's ability to fulfill its mission are "very much a live issue."

Skoufis discussed his concerns with JCOPE after the Albany Times Union reported a member of the State Police, an agency overseen by Gov. Andrew Cuomo, inquired about an airplane flight arranged last September by a rape survivor who backed the Child Victim Act in 2018.

That activist, Kat Sullivan, had become the focus of a lengthy JCOPE probe for allegedly acting as an unregistered lobbyist. Sullivan has said she planned to have the plane fly a banner near the statehouse, criticizing JCOPE, but the operation was called off due to the State Police inquiry.

The State Police have denied interfering with her plans.

JCOPE has also caught criticism after the Times Union revealed that a commission member leaked the results of a confidential vote pertaining to one of its government integrity investigations.

BAIL DEBATE

With lawmakers heading into a mid-winter recess, Democrats were sharply divided over whether to leave the controversial bail legislation enacted this year intact or restore some level of judicial discretion so judges will again be empowered to lock up defendants based on the potential danger they pose.

An exclusive Newsday story broke the details of one plan to address the criticisms coming from many members of the law enforcement community as well as a number of judges and district attorneys.

Stepping out of the state Capitol last Thursday, Washington County Sheriff Jeff Murphy, the new president of the New York Sheriff's Association, told me he was "encouraged" by the latest developments. But he cautioned he was withholding his full support because he wants to review the proposed legislation once it is drafted.

Another caveat: This isn't soup yet. Assembly Speaker Carl Heastie, D-Bronx, has repeatedly stated it is far too early to throw in the towel on the new law. He insists there needs to be more data. Heastie also contends there are indications the law has led to increased fairness in the criminal justice system, despite the gripes from cops and prosecutors.

Joe Mahoney covers the New York Statehouse for CNHI's newspapers and websites. Reach him at jmahoney@cnhi.com.

Recommended for you