Our little part of the country would seem to have everything going for it. We are blessed with a beautiful countryside of fields, forests, mountains, valleys, lakes and streams – abundant with water, wildlife, and other natural resources – and capable of nourishing people, agriculture and industry. Our climate rarely produces the hurricanes, tornadoes, forest fires, floods, and earthquakes that seem to plague and harm people elsewhere.
Anchored to the world port of New York City, and strategically positioned on the favored route to the West, Upstate's natural assets only needed the leverage provided by the Erie Canal to become productive. Following the canal, people came and found things to do, supported by the canal's ability to inexpensively transport raw materials and finished products to where they had to go. Fruit, vegetable, and dairy farms flourished in the fertile landscape. Readily available hydropower turned wheels in mills where all sorts of products were manufactured. Jobs became plentiful, and the population increased. Cities grew along the canal like pearls on a string, becoming centers of wealth, culture, commerce, and education. The Erie Canal, and Upstate's growth, in turn, spurred more growth in New York City, turning it into the world's financial capital.
Although the canal declined in importance following construction of the railroads, Upstate continued to grow and do well because its long-established institutions and infrastructure provided amenities not available in many other places. Even our own Greater Utica area was growing at such a rate that there were fears that our natural resources, especially water, would be unable to sustain the growth. In 1968 Oneida and Herkimer Counties, with the New York State Department of Health, commissioned a study of all of the water resources in the counties and planned how those resources should be developed and distributed to serve a population expected to grow from the then-approximately 335,000 to about 568,000 in 1990 to well over 700,000 by 2020.
However, our population did not grow. The trend reversed, and our two counties have lost population, now holding less than 300,000. This change was not confined to our area. Like elms succumbing to the dutch-elm disease, other Upstate areas also became economically sick, with declining populations, businesses and jobs leaving, taxes increasing, and, incongruously, development taking up more acreage, replacing farms and orchards. Now, for businesses to come into the region, we feel obliged to bribe them with various taxpayer subsidies. Our natural and man-made assets no longer are attractive. Why? Examination of what happened to two of Upstate's biggest assets, cheap transportation and cheap hydropower, suggests the source of our problem.
The canal was superseded by the railroad, and the railroad by the Interstate Highway System. Other places had railroads and interstates, too, so Upstate lost its transportation advantage. But New York State's maintenance of a toll on the Thruway, Upstate's principal east-west commerce artery, placed Upstate at a distinct disadvantage, when compared to other parts of the country. Considering that the federal government paid New York a large sum of money in the late 1980s to make up for the state having used its own money to construct the Thruway, and considering that the bonds used to finance the Thruway were paid off in 1996, there was no need for the toll to remain, but it did. To add insult to injury, the legislature turned maintenance of Interstate 84, a toll-free Downstate highway, over to the Thruway Authority, and removed tolls from Downstate portions of the Thruway including the New England section, burdening Upstaters, through their tolls, to pay to maintain several free Downstate highways. This smacks of the colonialism that existed between America and England in the 1700's which led to the Revolution. Clearly, a different standard is being applied to Upstate, and state government has turned Upstate's transportation advantage into a disadvantage.
Although hydropower (which is cheap) is abundant in Upstate New York, Upstate still has some of the highest electric rates in the nation. This is because the power is being shared with Downstate. The NYRI power line would have made it even easier to send more power from Upstate to Downstate and was expected to increase Upstate rates further. Although we are fortunate that this proposal has been taken off the table, the New York Power Authority is proposing a line under the Hudson that will do essentially the same thing. Meanwhile, Downstate shut down the Shoreham, Long Island nuclear power plant before it even became productive, hopes to do away with its Indian Point nuclear power plant, and is planning on doing away with its coal-fired generation plants. New York State now wants a significant percentage of power to come from renewable sources, which includes hydro. Essentially, Upstate will become New York City's power generation station. Again, a different standard is being applied to Upstate, and state government has again turned an Upstate advantage into a disadvantage.
Cheap transportation and cheap power, both essential to Upstate's manufacturing economy, have been done away with to satisfy preferences of people living in a part of the state where the economy does not depend on them. The Upstate perspective in state policy-making has been lost. When and how did this happen, because up until the 1960s both parts of the state had worked together and were doing well?
The change may be traced to the reapportionment of the New York State Legislature. Prior to the mid-60s the State Senate was usually controlled by Upstate, and the Assembly was controlled by Downstate. This was the case regardless of which party controlled which house or the Governorship. For anything to get done, Upstate and Downstate were forced to work together, to accommodate each other, and to look out for each other's interests. They did -- and a symbiotic relationship developed that worked incredibly well for over 150 years, turning New York State into the Empire State, the most populous, powerful, and wealthiest state in the nation.
Then came the US Supreme Court decision in WMCA, Inc. v Lomenzo, 377 US 633 (1964), which held that the NY Constitution's apportionment scheme (which ensured that Upstate's perspective would be heard) violated the 14th Amendment of the US Constitution's “equal protection” clause - the Court equating "one man - one vote" with "equal protection." The reapportionment of the state legislature that followed gave Downstate control of both houses. Upstate, and, to a lesser extent, New York State as a whole, have declined in importance ever since.
The Court's decision was split 7-3. As the Dissent pointed out, there may be good reasons for a state to ensure that particular geographic areas have a voice, and it is a violation of State Sovereignty for the US Supreme Court to second guess the reasons why a particular arrangement was chosen.
I happen to believe that New York's Founding Fathers over 200 years ago knew what they were doing, which was not unlike what the country's Founding Fathers were doing when they gave every State two senators regardless of population. We need to renew an appreciation for their wisdom in designing a Senate based on geography and an Assembly based on population. Then we need to get the Supreme Court to revisit its old decision.
Perhaps with the "new evidence" represented by Upstate's 40-year decline following reapportionment, the outcome will be different. . . the symbiotic relationship between Upstate and Downstate will be restored, and New York will rise again as one state -- the Empire State.
[This article was originally published in the May, 2009 "Utica Phoenix." Be sure to pick up this month's "Phoenix" to read "Water, Water Everywhere, But Not a Drop to Drink?" ... available now in a newsrack near you.]