New York’s top economic development agency isn’t releasing enough information to determine whether billions of dollars are being misspent.

That was a key takeaway from a report by state Comptroller Thomas DiNapoli this week, which called for improved transparency and oversight tied to the state’s Empire State Development Corp.

Findings in the report touched on how the agency is racking up billions of dollars worth of debt while circumventing the state constitution and voters.

Some lawmakers and government watchdog groups reacted to the DiNapoli’s report by renewing calls for lawmakers to demand more accountability.

Among them is E.J. McMahon, president of the Empire Center for Public Policy, a fiscally conservative research group based in Albany.

McMahon answered some questions from the Albany Business Review about the comptroller’s report. Here is an edited version of the discussion.

How does this affect debate over whether the state’s plan to give tax breaks and other incentives is working?

It fits into the category of picking winners and losers, and a lot of this money is steered to developers who make proposals that the state likes.

The report also points out a lot of the money is borrowed money. People read about these economic development awards and they think we’ve got a zillion dollars, but a lot of it is taking on debt.

What are some examples of the projects?

It ranges all the way to pieces of the chunk of money for the GlobalFoundries project to the latest generation of repairs to the Buffalo Bills stadium.

It’s also the bonded capital — like parts of the so-called “Buffalo billion.”

Will DiNapoli’s report prompt some specific action to improve transparency?

It’s adding to the drumbeat of calls for greater transparency in the broad area of economic development.

It’s not the first time of making the point of asking, ‘how about having a better metrics to gauge these programs.’

The one thing that is not covered by the existing metrics is the opportunity costs – what do we not have because we didn’t spend these state dollars on something else?

What if you had spent that few billion on some other core infrastructure?

The question is what are we neglecting for lack of a better word, in order to fund this?

That touches on debate this week in Syracuse, where Mayor Stephanie Miner said Gov. Andrew Cuomo‘s latest economic development plans disregarded the importance of upgrading aging water pipes and roads in order to attract business. How important is that part of the story?

I do think points made about investing in infrastructure are important ones.

If the state Comptroller’s Office can’t access the right data to monitor these economic development programs, who can?

The Legislature itself. But the Legislature has been falling down on the job in its oversight role.

The Legislature seems to have forgotten its role in oversight.

I don’t think that either house has done enough to demand the information.

That is in part because both houses have their hand prints over a lot of these projects.

How much do they just want to make sure that they have their names on the press release?

They ultimately can get answers if they want to. The Legislature needs to seek more answers.

Here is an Albany Business Review story about the report released this week by state Comptroller Thomas DiNapoli.

© 2015 Albany Business Review

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