Andrew Cuomo likes a good competition.

Where should the state send school aid? Let’s have a contest. Who should build new upstate casinos? Let’s have another contest. What do we do about the aging Tappan Zee Bridge? Contest. How do we redesign the region’s major airports? Contest.

It fits, of course, with the character of this particular Democrat, who believes a free market extends beyond the trading floors of Wall Street, the storefronts along Broadway and the car dealerships that dot Albany’s Central Avenue.

He believes in government by contest, which, he says, forces the good to be great.

Cuomo isn’t the first Democrat to come to this conclusion, as illustrated by the enormous attention paid to President Obama’s Race to the Top education program and to other stimulus initiatives. But he is certainly among the most enthusiastic practitioners of the concept as a default mode of doing government business.

“It started with Race to the Top and now it’s gone from education to design,” said Mitchell Moss, an urban planning professor at New York University. “I think we’ve entered a new era of government by contest.”

Cuomo has been pitting government against government long before he became governor, and long before Obama rose to the national stage.

Cuomo arrived at the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development in 1993. He was 35 years old, ambitious and still trying to emerge from the shadow of his father, a national liberal champion whose most famous speech was a repudiation of Reaganomics and an insistence on “all the government we need.”

Cuomo bought a ticket to Washington with the success of his nonprofit group HELP—that is, Housing Enterprise for the Less Privileged. The task he took on as an assistant secretary for HUD was enormous: Solve homelessness, or at least put a major dent in the problem. But Cuomo had one untested philosophy that he would use to shake things up.

Cuomo complained he found a “fragmented approach” to addressing homelessness at the agency, he wrote in his recently published memoir, All Things Possible. Despite throwing millions upon millions of dollars at the problem, the issue persisted across America. He said HUD’s four grant programs used a broken formula that paid no mind to where funds were going, sending multiple grants to small cities as some of the nation’s metropolises got scraps.

That changed. The largest cities were given the chance to get a larger percentage of the resources. And stakeholders in each city were to work together, not against each other. That’s where the cooperation stopped, though. Competition, according to Cuomo, was key to this program.

“Would-be recipients had to do an inventory of need and available social services, design a system, and coordinate, and they had to compete—so performance mattered,” Cuomo wrote. “The new approach was my first attempt to use federal resources strategically, to incentivize top-north government performance, rather than simply hand out grants.”

More than two decades later, it is a guiding approach to decision making in his administration, from the selection of a firm to devise a global tourism marketing campaign to the distribution of economic development funds across upstate.

Cuomo has applied this approach to infrastructure. It started with a competition to redesign the Tappan Zee Bridge, the Hudson River crossing that is in desperate need of replacement.

Now the governor has made his latest contest a monster: Developing a master plan that, he says, would allow the state to fundamentally rethink John F. Kennedy International and LaGuardia airports, along with Stewart Airport in the Hudson Valley and Republic Airport on Long Island.

The initiative is meant to look at air travel in the New York area through a wide lens, finding ways to maximize the current airport footprints through redesign, to incorporate mass transit and other improvements to access, create more hotel and conference space and to develop better dining, retail and entertainment offerings, according to the Port Authority of New York and New Jersey, which controls the region’s major airports.

“The goal of the competitions is to offer a holistic reimagining of both of New York’s major airports and set them up as world-class gateways to the region and the nation for the next 50 years,” said Chris Valens, an authority spokesman, in an email.

Cuomo’s announcement of the contest was timed perfectly, from a political standpoint. Just two weeks before he was up for re-election last year, Cuomo took the stage at an aviation school near LaGuardia Airport and sat beside Vice President Joe Biden, who once said the airport reminded him of the “third world.”

The governor basked in a comparison to Abraham Lincoln, who the vice president noted put considerable tax dollars toward building a coast-to-coast rail system.

“Like you, pal,” Biden told Cuomo, “he had vision.”

The timing of the announcement was less good in other ways. In the eyes of business and transportation groups that have been optimistically tracking another, better-developed project at LaGuardia, it was downright awful. That other project, a $3.6 billion rehabilitation of LaGuardia’s Central Terminal, or Terminal B, would fix many of the problems that led Biden to make his colorful comparison to the third world.

The work has been years in the making. The Port Authority, though, has repeatedly delayed selection of a team to execute the work on it. The decision was already late when Cuomo announced the design competition; now it appears that the competition itself is the problem. Companies last month submitted six different proposals for LaGuardia as part of the contest, and now the state and the Port Authority must figure out how to take the existing Central Terminal project (which was put out to bid, by the way) and mash it up with the broader ideas for the full airport.

While some of these proposals are likely to get rave reviews, the very idea of scrapping the Central Terminal project at this point will probably not sit well with many people. It would mean throwing out years of preparation.

And to make matters even more complicated, Cuomo has already proposed an idea of his own for the airport: An elevated train to LaGuardia, which has no rail access but is reachable by bus and taxi.

Gene Russianoff of the Straphangers Campaign said it all reminds him of the elder Cuomo’s ideas for LaGuardia, which included a one-seat ride on an elevated train that would have wrapped all around Queens and stopped and at both airports.

“You took one look at that, you could say it would never see the light of day,” Russianoff said, and suggested of the current governor’s plans: “It’s going to go the way of the convention center of his first State of the State speech.”

A top spokesman for Cuomo did not respond to requests for comment on this story.

The decisions about the airport master plan are supposed to be informed by a seven-member advisory panel appointed by the governor. It includes people like Dan Tishman, the chairman and chief executive of Tishman Construction Corp., and Amanda Burden, the former New York City planning commissioner. But the governor and the Port Authority retain control over the design competition.

In other cases, the governor has announced contests that garnered lots of attention at the time, only to depart from or ignore the results. The latest example of this was the state’s casino siting process, which involved an independent panel that reviewed mountains of paperwork submitted by 16 companies vying for the chance to open full-fledged resorts upstate. The board had the right to issue four licenses in three regions, but initially only selected three winners. After an outcry, the governor responded publicly by asking that the board re-open the bidding process in the Southern Tier.

To some knowledgeable observers, such instances raise questions about the reasons for Cuomo’s devotion to the contest method. Could it be that they’re really a way for him to keep his distance from fraught decisions by publicly devolving responsibility to these panels of experts, while in reality retaining control and getting the final say?

“Absolutely, yes,” said Veronica Vanterpool, the executive director of the Tri-State Transportation Campaign. “And I think that’s sort of the thing that requires some scrutiny—to see how many layers of separation really are created if the governor is responsible for appointing the people willing to make these decisions. Is there autonomy in the decision-making process? I think we saw that a little in the casino development board.”

Vanterpool doesn’t oppose contests, which she says can drive innovation—one reason she and other members of the Metropolitan Transportation Agency’s reinvention commission felt the need to mention competitions in their report last year. But she said she is wary of contests involving infrastructure and transportation because the winning projects may not always be the most important. There may be matters that require immediate attention but get overshadowed by the sexier promise of a new bridge or train.

Cuomo’s contests extend into the education sphere, where he has sought to mirror the Obama administration’s Race to the Top with his own competitive school funding programs. In the way state education departments compete against each other in Obama’s program, individual school districts are fighting for aid under Cuomo.

Organizations representing school superintendents and school boards both take issue with the approach and believe a formula would provide a fairer way to divvying up the money. Part of that comes out of instability, and it is more a criticism of grants in general than of competition.

“I think it’s really important for school districts and educators to have a sustainable, reliable funding stream,” says Dave Albert, spokesman for New York State School Boards Association.

The very process of competing can also place a strain on localities with limited bureaucratic resources—small school districts where the person writing grant proposals, in competition with better-funded districts, may also be teaching classes.

“Some of the poorest districts—districts that struggle the most—have the hardest time competing for funding,” said Bob Lowry, the deputy director of the New York State Council of School Superintendents. “Especially if they’re poor, rural districts. They tend to have very limited capacity.”

Now the governor is embarking on a new, grand economic development competition that will pit different regions of upstate against others. The potential prize is a share of $1.5 billion in legal settlement funds, an amount that Cuomo could choose to increase. The program is cut from the same cloth as Cuomo’s grant initiatives at HUD, where he required local government and stakeholders in each city to work together to put forward a cohesive proposal.

The process has attracted a fair deal of criticism. Beyond whether it is right to spend all that money on economic development—as opposed to something like infrastructure—lawmakers and budget hawks on both sides of the aisle say the prospect of developers shopping their plans all over the state is problematic. The Times Union’s Casey Seiler, channeling a common view among upstate officials, compared the idea to the The Hunger Games and Mad Max Beyond Thunderdome.

“Having seven regional economic development councils do battle over three pots of $500 million does a disservice to the entire region,” said Ron Deutsch, the interim executive director at the left-leaning Fiscal Policy Institute. “And certainly does a disservice to those who won’t be getting it.”

E.J. McMahon, who leads the fiscally conservative Empire Center, said it’s no surprise, and exactly the sort of contest Andrew Cuomo enjoys.

“The kind of competition he likes is the kind where people clamor for his favor based on criteria that is not exactly clear,” he said.

© 2015 Capital New York

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