Cuomo spent $161 million on tourism, business ads

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Cuomo. (AP Photo/Mike Groll)
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ALBANY—New York has spent $161 million on ads promoting tourism and its business climate since Governor Andrew Cuomo took office in 2011, records released to Capital late Thursday show.

The largest block amount of money was devoted to airing ads related to the Start UP NY program, which exempts new or expanding businesses from property, payroll and state income taxes if they locate in designated areas on or near university campuses. A state tabulation shows $28 million was spent to air this campaign, which began last December and at one point was continuing at the pace of roughly $5 million per month.

The spending has become an issue in this year's election campaign, with Republicans including gubernatorial candidate Rob Astorino saying they are little more than a taxpayer-funded political boost for Cuomo, a Democrat who is campaigning in part on his work to revive the state economy, particularly upstate.

The manner in which the information was disclosed has provided another example Cuomo's opaque governing style. Capital requested records related to the ads in January under the state's Freedom of Information Law in, and had to pester a spokesman for the Empire State Development corporation more than three dozen times before initial information was released in March.

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Gannett News Service filed a similar request over a year ago, and wrote recently about its frustration of not immediately receiving documents that were seemingly readily available.

Bob Freeman, the longtime chair of the state's Committee on Open Government, told Gannett that the apparent stonewalling was “inconsistent with law.”

Empire State Development's five-page summary response arrived at 6:45 p.m. Thursday, and was also apparently sent to Gannett and Newsday around the same time. The documents show how much was spent on various campaigns, and what percentage of the money was used to air ads in New York versus out of state.

Only one tourism campaign, promoting summer trips, had the majority of its expenditures beyond the Empire State's borders, the records show. Fifty-one percent of the $23 million spent to air the summer tourism campaign was directed out-of-state, to places within a five hour drive of New York including Montreal, Quebec, Pennsylvania, New Jersey and Connecticut.

Two other tourism campaigns, promoting winter and fall tourism, respectively saw 59 and 68 percent of their funds directed in state. A summary included with the figures argues that some of this occurred in the New York City media market and served an “important dual purpose” by reaching in-state population centers as well as New Jersey and Connecticut.

“We run tourism ads in all New York State markets since in-state residents are responsible for much for the tourism dollars spent in the State of New York,” the summary document, apparently generated for release with the FOIL requests, reads. “Again, New York City is critical in this effort as it is the largest population center for upstate tourism travel and the place most visited with over $50 million [sic] tourists per year.”

The state spent $13.42 million on ads to promote tourism after Superstorm Sandy, the documents show. Astorino has criticized Cuomo for directing money to advertising when some storm-ravaged residents are still struggling to rebuild. (The state successfully applied for permission to direct federal assistance for advertising spending.)

Peter Kauffmann, a spokesman for Cuomo's campaign and the Democratic State Committee, offered this response: "This is yet another in a string of pathetic, baseless attacks by a flailing candidate. The federal government approved funds for advertising to promote tourism in counties devastated by storm damage. New York State invested in a series of tourism ads to drive vacation dollars to those counties, many of which featured small businesses in the impacted areas. Under Governor Cuomo's leadership, New York is building back better than ever. I guess Rob Astorino's strategy would have been to tell those counties to drop dead."

This week, Comptroller Tom DiNapoli, a Democrat, said he would audit the ad spending for effectiveness. Per state law, Cuomo cannot and does not appear in any of the advertisements. But since their message of economic progress and joy dovetails with his campaign rhetoric, Republicans have gone on offense.

Astorino spokeswoman Jessica proud tweeted that the disclosures are “proof positive [that these are] nothing more than thinly veiled political ads. Take them off the air now.”

"This is a swindle of historic proportions," Astorino said in a Friday statement. "Andrew Cuomo has taken more than a quarter billion dollars of taxpayer money and put it into television advertising for his own political gain. People have been locked in jail for far less than that."