A Column of News & Comment by Senator James L. Seward
Over the last few weeks, with the state legislature in recess, I have spent a great deal of time traveling throughout the nine counties that make up the 51st Senate District. I have met with business owners, local government officials, toured county fairs and discussed a variety of topics with constituents. One subject matter that continually comes up – dividing New York State.
Let’s face it – an upstate-downstate divide exists, perhaps more so now than ever in recent history. Our economics are different, our way of life is different, and our priorities are different. While I am not entirely convinced that dividing New York State will solve all of the concerns we face, I do believe it is worthy of discussion and objective study.
Downstate domination of the legislature has become a serious problem and this year was the worst example. State funding is being channeled to New York City’s Metro Transportation Authority (MTA) while upstate roads and bridges are being shortchanged. New taxes that I objected to along with other upstate representatives are being implemented thanks to downstate majorities. There is even a move to impose New York City rent control policies on the entire state. Additionally, one of the most controversial laws in our state, the SAFE Act, continues to generate upstate-downstate debate.
Dividing the state is not a new idea. Legislation on this topic has circulated in Albany for years. One straightforward bill to gauge public opinion on the matter was first introduced in 2009 and is still active. The legislation (S.62) would place a non-binding referendum on the ballot asking the question, “Do you support the division of New York into two separate states?” This would allow the public to voice their opinion at the polls and provide a clear idea of how people feel about splitting up the state.
Several other bills have been introduced recently. Each takes a slightly different approach and I feel they are all worthy of discussion.
Senate bill S.5416 calls for a constitutional amendment to divide New York State into three autonomous regions. Under this plan, federal approval would not be required because New York would technically remain one state, but for state administrative purposes, we would be divided into three regions:
- New Amsterdam would be everything north of Westchester County;
- New York would consist of Bronx, Kings, New York City, Queens, and Richmond counties;
- Montauk would consist of Nassau, Suffolk, Rockland, and Westchester counties.
Each region would have authority over traditional state issues such as education aid, property taxes, and other state laws. Our local priorities would be front and center and would not lose out to New York City because of the population disparity.
Amending the state constitution is not simple. Two successively elected legislatures would have to pass this measure and then it would go before the voters for their approval. While this is a lengthy process, I believe it would allow for thoughtful deliberation over such a serious topic.
Senate bill 2047 offers another approach. Under this bill, also requiring a constitutional amendment, each county of the state would be represented by its own state senator. This plan follows along with the federal design – every state has two U.S. senators regardless of population.
Finally, senate bill 3814 would establish a working group within the office of the state comptroller to study the process and ramifications of separating upstate and downstate into two separate states. The working group would explore the short and long-term economic effects, including economic opportunities, of splitting the state. The study would also take into account the legal ramifications and precedents for dividing the state and determine the up-front cost involved.
There are pros and cons to each strategy and it is not an arrangement to be entered into lightly. However, dividing New York into multiple regions would help restore our upstate voice in the legislature, and is an idea worth thoughtful consideration.