Frequently Asked Questions
Here’s a bit of (first) history, (second) possible solutions, and (third) current concerns.
A Short Trip Back In Time: History Questions
The Greater Western New York region consists of the 17 western counties in New York State, historically known as “The Genesee Country,” that touch or include all land west of the Preemption that was established by the Treaty of Hartford on December 16, 1786. The region is recognized by the New York State Department of Health, the New York Press Association, and other groups. These include the counties of: Allegany, Cattaraugus, Chautauqua, Chemung, Erie, Genesee, Livingston, Monroe, Niagara, Ontario, Orleans, Schuyler, Seneca, Steuben, Wayne, Wyoming, and Yates.
Thanks to the flippancy of English royalty (or perhaps their failure to attend geography classes), Greater Western New York was given to not one, not two, not even three different colonies. In fact, it had been promised to no fewer than five different colonies. Eventually, and prior to the Revolutionary War, Virginia, Connecticut and Pennsylvania withdrew any pretensions for our beloved homeland. That left New York and Massachusetts both with legitimate, albeit awkward, rights to our region.
The conflict was finally settled with the Treaty of Hartford on December 16, 1786, when New York and Massachusetts agreed to divide New York along a boundary line running from the 82nd milestone of the New York-Pennsylvania border straight north to Lake Ontario. This boundary line would become known as “Pre-Emption Line” because, while New York would govern everything west of the line, Massachusetts held the pre-emptive right to buy the land from the Indians and resell it (which it did – twice, but that’s another story).
The states of New York and Massachusetts formally settled the matter of who owned the western portion of New York State when they agreed to terms on this date, December 16, 1786. Known as “The Treaty of Hartford,” this actually handled without regard to existing federal law. (At the time, the Articles of Confederation still ruled the infant nation of the United States of America. The Constitutional Convention that produced the current U.S. Constitution would not meet until a few months later in 1787.)
As recently as 1990 the 82nd milestone could still be seen. According to one source, “The marker for Milestone 82 which is 82 miles west from the west bank of the Delaware River along the 42nd parallel, is a stone still visible alongside Wedger Hill Road about four miles northwest of Millerton, Pennsylvania.” You may* also see it in the names of north-south streets in Ontario, Wayne, Yates, and Schuyler counties (the road disappears before Steuben and Chemung Counties, but the line marks the border of those counties.
* Why do we use the work “may” here? Well, it’s because…
It turns out the initial survey of the line wasn’t quite as “due north” as they had hoped. In fact, despite starting at the correct point (the 82nd milestone), the original line drifts to the west. You can still see the remnants of the old line and the new line in roads named “Old Pre-Emption Road” (you guessed it, that’s for the original line) and “Pre-emption Street” or “Pre-Emption Road” (which might refer to either the old or the new line) in the various towns and counties the line passes through.
The divergence, at its greatest extent, is three miles – and this is where the controversy begins. That’s enough to move the town of Geneva from the east side to the west side of the line. In fact, if you drive to Geneva, you can drive on Pre-Emption Road on the west side of the city (in Ontario County) and on Pre-Emption Street east of the city (actually in both Ontario and Seneca County). There was speculation the surveyor of the original line – Colonel Hugh Maxwell – may have purposely directed the line in such a way as to place Geneva to the east and firmly into New York State territory, but his notes prove otherwise.
Because the immense and famously fertile valley of the Genesee River bisects it nearly smack dab in the middle of the region.
The Primary Problem and What To Do About It: Solutions Questions
As New York State Senator George Borello, who represents one of the state’s largest Senate Districts (57th) including Allegany, Cattaraugus and Chautauqua counties plus eight towns in Livingston County, Borrello says, “The New York City-centric state government policies of high taxes along with oppressive and unnecessary regulations have disproportionately damaged Greater Western NY. It is the primary driver of our loss of population and rising poverty. One-size-fits-all state government has made us uncompetitive and kept our local economy in a perpetual state of recession.”
Although there may be a few other ideas, the three most popular proposals are:
- Become a new and independent state;
- Become an autonomous zone within the existing state; and,
- Just say “no” by electing local and county officials who will simply nullify laws passed in Albany that are inconsistent with the core values and beliefs of the majority of residents who live within the counties of the Greater Western New York Region.
A simple majority of both the New York State Assembly and the New York State Senate as well as a simple majority of both the United State Senate and House of Representatives.
There are several “Authorities” (like the New York State Thruway Authority) that already operate as virtually autonomous units with the State. It’s likely the process of achieving full independence will require a transition period where both the old and the new states would continue to share services.
The citizens of the Greater Western New York Region would have full control over their destiny and full representation at the federal level with no chance any political body outside the region could unilaterally remove these rights.
The ratification of new states is a national issue; thus, it is swayed by the dynamics of national politics which is something we have less control over. The chances of statehood increase when there’s bipartisan support for the idea across the nation. This means it’s more likely we’ll be granted statehood when there is one or more other new state ready to be ratified.
It is a defined geographic territory, much like a county is defined, within an existing state that has full and complete control over all legislative, jurisdictional, and governance matters within its borders.
This can be accomplished solely within the existing political infrastructure of New York State. Both the New York Senate and the New York Assembly would have to pass bills designating the Greater Western New York Region as an independent autonomous zone.
As an autonomous region, we would still be affiliated with New York State and certain assets (like the SUNY schools and State prisons as well as the transportation and energy infrastructure) would continue to be operated on a “joint venture” basis. All other policies, rules, and regulations would be subject to a terminal sunset provision long enough for the new autonomous government to reconsider their relevance and, if necessary, replace them.
This solution can be accomplished solely within the existing political infrastructure of New York State. It would not need to rely on any sort of federal action and therefore would not be subject to national politics.
Unlike becoming a new and independent state, when it comes to an autonomous zone, what New York City/Albany giveth, New York City/Albany can taketh away. While offering similar advantages of self-rule as an independent state would, there’s always the chance a new regime in Albany would have a change of heart and remove the autonomy granted to us.
This is a political strategy long practiced within the United States. We see it happening today when individual states and cities decide they will not enforce existing federal law. Examples in “sanctuary” cities that openly house illegal aliens or openly allow firearms deemed illegal by federal law. Perhaps the most recent example is New York State (among other states) deciding it will no longer prosecute federal drug laws by “legalizing” recreational marijuana.
This same strategy was practiced in New York State by several counties regarding the hastily passed SAFE Act. This controversial law was so flawed, sheriffs in individual counties spoke out against it and refused to enforce it. Ultimately, the most egregious aspects of the SAFE Act fell away in court.
It’s important to note that nullification only targets specific laws. All other laws remain in place
No. Nullification is not the same as civil disobedience, a tactic popularized in the 1960s civil rights protests and that continues to be employed by activists today. This is a more formal policy implemented by the populace through the selection of elected officials who can carry out such actions. Everyday citizens do not lead when it comes to nullification. Only elected officials can officially nullify questionable laws.
This is the easiest solution to implement as it does not require action by the state. It only requires local and county officials to take a stand against laws insensitive to the citizens within their jurisdictional area.
This is by far the riskiest option. While local officials can simply not enforce a State law, there’s nothing that prevents the State from interceding and enforcing their laws at a local level. Nullification only works best if there is companion tactic to have the law reversed in court, as what happened to the most radical portions of the SAFE Act.
Revealing Underreported Benefits To You: Myth-Busting Questions
Many other naysayers to regional independence like to point out Upstate has a $14 billion deficit in terms of state revenues and state expenditures. According to one article, “Upstate New Yorkers pay about $20 billion per year in taxes and fees to the state, and receive back about $34 billion in spending, according to a 2011 study by the Rockefeller Institute of Government in Albany.”
Furthermore, the article warns “‘In order to continue spending at the same level, the Upstate region outside of the Capital Region would have to have either a 50 percent increase in taxes or would have to cut spending by a third to keep taxes at the same level,’ said David Friedfel, director of state studies at the nonprofit Citizens Budget Commission.”
Indeed, some use Friedfel’s quote as additional proof to the notion that the Greater Western New York Region stands to lose money if we break away from New York State. In fact, rather than exposing the problem, this notion actually reveals the solution.
According to the New York Association of Counties, unfunded mandates imposed by Albany on every county represents nearly 100% of all county tax revenues. This leaves little for counties to spend on their own unique needs.
It’s possible, perhaps even likely, that this $14 billion gap (it’s less for the Greater Western New York Region) can be erased by restructuring or eliminating mandates. We may find we’re leaving billions on the table once we remove the mandates New York State has been, in effect, bribing us to follow. This could represent an undiscovered financial bonanza.
A 2019 article claims “Upstate New York would be a smaller and less dynamic economy that would likely struggle to compete with other states if it separated from New York City and its suburbs, experts say.” To bolster this point, it cites “The number of jobs in Upstate New York increased 6.3 percent since 2010, among the worst growth rates in the nation. Upstate, if it stood alone as a state, would rank about 49th in job growth nationwide. During the same period, New York City and downstate counties registered a 21.2 percent increase in the number of jobs, according to the Empire Center for Public Policy.”
While this is related to subsequent points, it’s clear non-economic policies coming out of Albany, based primarily on the overstated influence of legislators from New York City, have created impediments to economic growth in the Greater Western New York Region. While these policies may have a home in the downstate megalopolis, they do more harm than good here. For example, how much growth did we miss because of the State’s attitude (and outright ban) on fracking? That restriction did more to harm regional economic growth than the State-financed “Buffalo Billion” did to help us.
Using “a study by Buffalo-based M&T Bank last year,” a 2019 article references “an ‘ominous long-term trend’ with fewer available workers in a 12-county region surrounding Syracuse. The regional workforce declined 43,800 since the start of 2007, a 6.1 percent decline. Overall, the nation’s workforce increased 6.3 percent during the same period.”
Granted, Syracuse is outside the Greater Western New York Region, but the same arguments have been made about us.
High taxes and overburdening regulation can make it difficult both to attract workers as well as to afford to employ workers. Regarding the former, this allows other states to poach our companies. This happened most recently when Michigan gave Truck-Lite of Falconer, NY (outside of Jamestown) an $855,000 grant to relocate. The company blamed this move on “a hard time finding employees.”
For that matter, New York State rules make it increasingly more expensive to employ workers. Businesses, especially small businesses (who the state refuses to exempt) can no longer afford to employ people at the same levels as in the past. Look no further than the $15/hour minimum wage. Not only are companies rethinking their personnel strategies, but they are lopping off entire business units (for example, see the closing of Mark’s Pizzeria franchises).
The real problem here is our shrinking population. This isn’t a new problem. It’s been around for more than 60 years. Perhaps there’s a reason why people are leaving? (Spoiler Alert: It’s not the weather.) Clearly state policies aren’t working. What works for New York City does not work for the Greater Western New York Region. The facts continue to support this, even if Albany refuses to recognize these facts.
A 2019 article reinforces this disconnect between our region and the New York City-Albany Axis. It says, “Upstate would also lose the source of economic development incentives paid for largely with settlement funds from New York City-based banks… those who suggest New York’s taxes and regulations are holding back Upstate New York should look at New York City and its suburbs.”
We may not really know who coined the adage “Insanity is doing the same thing over and over again and expecting different results,” but it most certainly could have been a fly on the wall overlooking the so-called New York State “brain trust.” Again, what works for New York City does not work for the Greater Western New York Region.
According to a 2019 article, “Although 50 of the 64 SUNY campuses are in Upstate New York, most of the students come from New York City and downstate counties. Those students would lose their in-state tuition incentive to attend Upstate colleges and universities, and the schools would likely see a reduction in government aid. The same problem would affect state prisons, which disproportionately house inmates from downstate communities. Of New York’s 54 state prisons, 48 are north of New York City and its suburbs.”
For the record, Greater Western New York has 14 SUNY schools, including the University of Buffalo which appears to be slowly evolving back into a Division I private university. It has 15 prisons, including 5 of the State’s 17 Maximum Security prisons.
The fact that most of the students and prisoners come from outside the Greater Western New York Region does more to support the idea that independence would be a financial bonanza. There’s no reason why New York State could not continue to support these students and prisoners.
The fundamental problem in New York State is the dictatorship of the majority. This means densely populated cities can rule over rural communities. Because of the highly concentrated populations of Buffalo and Rochester, none of the potential solutions will address this problem unless a new state constitution is written. This new constitution would be patterned after the U.S. Constitution unlike the New York State constitution which predates it. For example, state senators would not be based on population, as they are in the New York State constitution. Instead, like the U.S. Senate, each county would have the same number of senators representing them. This is how the Founding Fathers solved the problem of the dictatorship of the majority. We can follow the same template.