Looking Back at State Planning

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Eye from Albany
March 2001

Looking Back at State Planning
By Paul M. Bray

The faded orange cover of the “New York State Development Plan-1” on my book shelf caught my eye the other day. It was the last product of real state planning in New York. Thirty years have passed since the document was published.

Comprehensive state planning had its hay day during the Rockefeller administration. The Plan was presented as a bench marking for the State, part of an effort “to bring the powerful and complex forces of urban growth under control and in balance with our natural resources”. It was designed to address the physical pattern of development along with social and economic matters and was a response by the State Office of Planning Coordination to a legislative mandate to prepare “a comprehensive plan for the development of New York State”.

Both the Plan and any real semblance of state planning in New York have disappeared from the scene of state government. It is timely to consider why this has happened and what the consequences, if any, are.

The social, economic and environmental forces at work in New York today are no less powerful and complex than they were three decades ago Certainly, these forces and the challenges they create are not under control or in balance for us any more than they were in 1971. In fact, it is perhaps that their complexity has grown so much it has outstripped the state’s government’s ability to do anything more than play catch up.

More directly, the demise of state planning can be attributed to three causes. Internally within the Executive Department there is an inherent tension between planners and budget people. Plans call for money to implement and the budget bean counters are there stem the outflow of state money. Under Rockefeller as I understood it, the Governor would hear both sides, planners v. budgeters, make their best case and then decide.

Most people seem to believe that the cause of the fall of state planning is a result of local antipathy to state and regional planning in order to preserve the sanctity of home rule when it comes to physical planning. It may be the case, but it makes little sense as localities can benefit more than any other level of government from the benefits of good planning from top to bottom.

Finally, there is the simple fact that the three governors since the Rockefeller-Wilson years haven’t had any real interest in seeking solutions to state or regional, overarching and long term strategies to manage the state’s environmental, social and economic forces.

Under Governor Carey state planning was downsized, in part, as a victim of the end of the days of wine and roses in 1975 and placed in the Department of State. Mario Cuomo as Secretary of State had responsibility for what was left of state planning. The story goes that one of his staff, a former planning consultant, convinced him that state planning was a superfluous function that could be handled when needed by private consultants. State planning never saw the light of day under Governor Cuomo. The Division of the Budget became the defacto state planning entity.

State planning as a forward looking and comprehensive activity of state government has not been embraced by Governor Pataki. This leaves planning to be limited to isolated functions like transportation, tourism or the environment and to individual areas like Long Island, the Hudson River Valley or western New York usually for limited purposes. Coordinating between local, regional and state levels of government and between social, economic and environmental objectives is at best hit or miss.

As a result we are a state that lacks the administrative capacity to comprehensively measure and bench mark areas of economic, social and environmental quality of life, to recommend overall goals and objectives to the Governor and legislature and to be tool to help coordinate between state agencies and levels of government as well as provide an clear and timely indication of public priorities and thereby open vast opportunities in support of these priorities.

Many think that it is whistling in the wind to think that a state planning capacity can be recreated. Who has time to be farsighted when each year the state budget becomes a blood sport and all the very many and diverse stakeholders in what government does are so strong and entrenched? When any and every issue can be in play, no political or private sector player has the luxury of putting much time in overarching structural governmental reform like advocating for state planning.

But can we ever successfully get beyond treading water over the state’s urban, suburban and rural, environmental, public infrastructure, education, health and social needs without adequate data collection and analysis, articulations of goals, active efforts at public and private coordination and bench marking on progress towards goals?