Cuomo and the Buffalo Bills' Billion

When a political scandal and a stadium subsidy collide.

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New York Gov. Andrew Cuomo announced his resignation last week following the release of a report by New York Attorney General Tish James showing that Cuomo had sexually harassed several women. When Cuomo officially leaves office next week, Lt. Gov. Kathy Hochul will take over.

Cuomo has been governor for more than a decade, so many things about the New York political scene are surely going to change once he’s good and gone. Of course, one thing that hopped to my mind was negotiations around a new stadium for the National Football League’s Buffalo Bills, which the Bills’ owners have asked New York to publicly fund.

I don’t think the change from Cuomo to Hochul means a whole lot for the dynamics of the situation — which means New York taxpayers need to watch out.

There have been a lot of numbers thrown around since talks over a new Bills stadium became public a few weeks ago. The one thing they have in common is they are all very large. Current reporting suggests the proposed stadium has a cost of $1.4 billion, with the team wanting all or nearly all of it covered by the public.

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If the final number comes anywhere close to that, it will be the largest stadium subsidy in American history, topping the one Nevada gave to the Las Vegas Raiders in 2016. The Bills are also not so subtly floating Austin, Texas, as a potential destination should they not receive an acceptable public funding package.

In their public comments, New York lawmakers have left the door very open to significant funding of the stadium, if not the 100 percent that the team’s ownership floated. I imagine the 100 percent ask was a negotiating tactic by the team anyway, so that whatever percentage they ultimately land on will look reasonable by comparison.

As governor, Hochul is going to be right in the middle of all this. Here’s what she said about the stadium before Cuomo stepped down:

“We are in negotiations and conversations right now and we’re learning the full-scale of what they’re proposing,” Hochul said. “This is going to be a conversation that is ongoing, but it is of utmost importance to our administration.” […]

The Lt. Governor says the state will do everything possible to keep the Bills in the Buffalo region.

“We are committed to keeping the Buffalo Bills in the city — stop period — that's it,” responded Hochul. […]

“We’re not feeling threatened — we're having conversations with the organization — we're gong to get the result that this community needs and are sensitive to the needs of our taxpayers,” replied Hochul.

And here’s another Hochul quote, post-Cuomo resignation:

I will assemble a team of very knowledgeable people and skilled negotiators, as well as work with the legislature on this. This would require funding from the State Legislature, and I've already heard from a number of legislators who want to be involved in that.

So, it'll be a collaborative approach to getting to the result which is smart for the taxpayers, but also ensures the longevity of the Buffalo Bills. That is a high priority of mine: the Buffalo Bills in Buffalo.

Hochul certainly isn’t ruling out giving a hefty sum to the Bills ownership, despite the overwhelming evidence that publicly funding a football stadium is akin to setting taxpayer money on fire. In fact, she seems to be operating under the assumption that the state will pay something, with the question being how much.

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There are a few important points of context here: First, New York lawmakers love corporate tax incentives. The state has the most disclosed corporate subsidies in the nation, at more than $40 billion worth.

For all that money, New York has mostly received a string of scandals. The highest profile of those involved what’s known as the Buffalo Billion (a rather prophetic name, given the current stadium situation), a $1 billion pot of development money meant for the Buffalo area, which landed a bunch of Cuomo associates in legal trouble for rigging bids and self-dealing. As former U.S. Attorney Preet Bharara put it, “Companies got rich and the public got bamboozled.”

The centerpiece of that massive failed effort was a Tesla SolarCity plant that received $950 million in taxpayer funds and didn’t deliver much in the way of economic benefits. In fact, Democratic socialist India Walton won the Democratic nomination to be Buffalo’s next mayor, topping the incumbent Byron Brown, in part by making a pointed critique of the Buffalo Billion deal.

“We will bail out Wall Street and banks and give a billion dollars in tax incentives to one of the richest people in the world to build an empty Tesla factory in South Buffalo, and when it comes to providing the resources that working families need to thrive, socialism becomes scary at that point,” she said.

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But New York’s issues with incentive programs certainly don’t end there. Here’s a good long list of them, and some coverage I’ve done here too. At the state and local level, the whole thing is a mess of corruption, incompetence, and wasted money.

Hochul doesn’t start the negotiations over the Bills with an outright scandal, but there is at the very least a conflict of interest. Her husband is an executive at the company that runs concessions at the current Bills stadium, and therefore presumably has an interest in a new one that will undoubtedly feature fancier food areas and more luxury boxes. That company, Delaware North, is already facing inquiries about how often its business was before Hochul’s office — and making hash of the response.

All of which is to say, I wouldn’t bet against New York taxpayers putting a hefty chunk of change into a new Bills stadium — no matter who is in the governor’s mansion. Those opposed to what will be a massive misuse of taxpayer money need to get organized and do it now.

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ONE MORE THING: The folks at More Perfect Union teamed up with Florida state Rep. Anna Eskamani to put out an excellent video on the recent half a billion dollar tax break Disney received from Florida. Give it a watch below.


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— Pat Garofalo