New York considering unlikely split into three autonomous regions 

— Graphic created by Noah Zweifel using material from Wikimedia Commons

Most Likely to Secede: New legislation has been drafted to split New York State into three autonomous regions in a new attempt at the decades-old idea of isolating New York’s divided upstate and downstate cultures. The New York Region would consist of the Bronx, Kings (Brooklyn), New York (Manhattan), Queens and Richmond counties. The Montauk Region would include Nassau, Rockland, Suffolk, and Westchester counties. The remaining counties would be part of the New Amsterdam Region.

ALBANY — As twin bills that would split New York State into three autonomous regions tumble their way through the Assembly and State Senate, Westerlo resident Betty Filkins is asking that local governments support the constitutional amendment by adopting home-rule resolutions, thereby allowing the passage of a law that would radically alter the structure and organization of the state’s governments — if it’s ever taken seriously by lawmakers. 

The amendment, which was introduced in the Senate and Assembly last year by Republican Senator Robert Ortt and Republican Assemblyman David DiPietro, defines the regions as:

 — New York, comprising New York City’s five counties;  

 — Montauk, comprising Nassau, Rockland, Suffolk, and Westchester counties; and

 — New Amsterdam, comprising the rest of the state’s 62 counties.

In addition to partitioning the state, the amendment would restrict the state government’s ability to levy sales tax by imposing a 4-percent cap for the first 10 years followed by a 3-percent cap, leaving the remaining taxation up to each region’s own local governments.

Those governments would closely mimic the current state government with regional governors, lieutenant governors, and secretaries of state, along with bicameral legislatures. 

In the regional senates, New York would have 34 lawmakers, Montauk would have 12, and New Amsterdam would have 24. To determine the number of assembly members, the population of each region would be divided by 125,000 and rounded up to the nearest odd whole number. As of the last census, New York would have 67 assembly members, Montauk 33, and New Amsterdam 57.  

The senators and assembly members of these regional governments would also serve in the state’s chambers, weighing in on the laws in the few areas that remain under state purview, such as the National Guard and Social Security. All other legislation would be controlled by the regional governments. 

 

Background

The autonomous-regions amendment is a new attempt at an old idea: breaking upstate and downstate New York apart on the basis of political differences. 

Arguably, tensions between the two regions were present as early as the 18th Century. As was the case with other metropolitan areas, New York City was home to a chapter of the Sons of Liberty, which had established itself in Boston as a radical agent against British rule, while the area of Tryon County — which corresponds generally with the Mohawk Valley and northward through present-day Saint Lawrence County — was firmly under the influence of the loyalist Sir William Johnson, who himself was closely affiliated with the Iroquois tribes, many of which aligned with the British during the Revolutionary War. 

More recently, in what’s considered to be one of the country’s more polarizing elections, New York State as a whole cast its vote for Democrat Hillary Clinton over Republican Donald Trump in 2016, but the bulk of Clinton’s winnings were concentrated in downstate counties, which hold approximately 63-percent of the state’s total population. In upstate New York, north of Westchester County, Clinton won 8 out of 43 counties, with the rest backing Trump. 

And in the New York State Assembly, which has 150 districts, 95 of those districts represent downstate areas, while four cover both an upstate and downstate county. Of those 99 districts, only 17 are represented by a Republican (with one represented by a member of the Independence Party). Of the remaining 51 districts, 26 are represented by a Republican. The State Senate, meanwhile, has been dominated by Republicans for decades, just recently undergoing a blue shift.

All this boils down to a sense of underrepresentation by the state’s northern population, which is largely rural and far removed from New York City’s cosmopolitan milieu. 

Filkins, borrowing language from the advocacy group Divide NYS, writes, “The overwhelming majority of the state of New York consists of small to medium-sized communities set in rural and suburban climates as in our area; generally conservative values blend with moderate liberal ideals to create a unique political platform.

“Meanwhile,” Filkins’s letter continues, “the downstate counties that make up New York City are significantly more liberal leaning in their values and are world famous for the size and power of the most significant city in the world.

“It is equally unfair to both upstate and downstate residents to share the same representative government; the vast differences in lifestyle and aspirations demonstrate that both downstate and upstate should have their own autonomous governments so as to more effectively serve their constituents.”

“Everyone I talk to or converse with on Facebook feel we have to do this or we are doomed,” Filkins, a Republican whose husband is a Republican member of the Westerlo Town Board, told The Enterprise this week. Filkins is a member of Divide NYS.

Assemblyman Chris Tague, a Republican who represents the 102nd District and is a cosponsor on the Assembly bill, told The Enterprise that the regulations passed by downstate lawmakers are misapplied in the upstate region.

“The biggest thing is that there is an insurmountable voting advantage from New York City membership in the Assembly,” Tague said, “and a lot of times they don’t take into consideration the interests of rural upstate New York. 

“What works on Schoharie’s Main Street and what works in Main Street Manhattan is not the same … It’s always a one-glove fits all approach and it’s not good for our businesses.”

On the flip side, downstate New Yorkers have complained that upstate New York sucks up revenues while making only paltry contributions to the state coffers. 

An analysis by the Rockefeller Institute of Government, a think tank headquartered at the University at Albany, compared the amount of revenue raised by the upstate and downstate regions and the amount each received in aid during the 2009-10 fiscal year, and found that upstate New York received “far more” than it raised. 

“By this analysis,” the report reads, “New York City’s share of state revenue payments is around 45 percent, and it receives 40 percent of expenditures. The Downstate Suburbs provide roughly 27 percent of taxes and other revenues, nearly 10 percentage points more than they receive in aid for education, health care, state payroll, and other expenditures.

“By contrast, the Rest of State region provides 24 percent of the revenues and receives 35 percent of expenditures. Not surprisingly, the Capital Region also shows a net gain, with a gap of 3 percentage points between its share of revenues and of expenditures.”

For those reasons, several attempts have been made by politicians from both upstate and downstate to partition the state, usually by creating two different states altogether. 

In his 1969 campaign for mayor of New York City, author Norman Mailer ran unsuccessfully with the promise of secession front and center. (Staten Island, by itself, has made repeated attempts to break from the rest of the city.) 

In state chambers, proposals related to secession have been floated more than 20 times in the past 30 years.

No attempt has made it very far, though, forcing proponents to consider the autonomous region plan in the hopes that it’s more palatable for the powers that be.

Divide NYS reasons that, by aiming for autonomous regions rather than separate states, the issue will bypass the United States Congress, which is viewed as a primary obstacle.

Divide NYS board member John Bergener Jr. told The Enterprise that past attempts by lawmakers to split the state in two have failed because those lawmakers “go through the process and Congress says ‘No we’re not going to give the Northeast two more senate seats,’ so it dies.”

Filkins explained to The Enterprise that, in her own conversations with representatives about dividing the state, “I was basically told that it was not going to happen so, when I found a group that wanted to divide by autonomous regions, it makes more sense and it is more likely to carry.” 

The three-regions plan also dodges an easy criticism against the two-state plan, which is that the State University of New York system would crumble because the bulk of downstaters that populate SUNY campuses upstate would no longer receive in-state tuition, leaving them apt to select local or private options. 

In the three-regions plan, the SUNY system would be fragmented along regional lines but, to retain the matriculation incentives, each region would have to pay $8,000 for each student that attends a university in another region’s system every six months for a maximum of eight payments (four years). 

Still, the New Amsterdam region would likely find itself short-changed if no longer able to rely on downstate revenues. 

"The economic engine of our state is New York City,” Assemblywoman Patricia Fahy, a Democrat who represents the 109th District, told The Enterprise, “and Upstate New York would lose an estimated $14 billion in annual tax revenue should a split ever occur — not to mention the devastating impact on the jobs market and our state’s overall economic competitiveness … 

“Those who seek to divide our state,” Fahy said, “or seriously consider secession at a time when New Yorkers yearn for unity and opportunity during a time of crisis must consider the very real and tangible consequences such a move would entail for families and workers across the state.” 

But proponents of the plan argue that, with governance tailored to the circumstances of upstate economies, the region would experience a period of growth, with conservative politicians likely bucking environmental regulations that some see as restricting revenue potential, or at least burdening the upstate region with extra expenses.

In an article for the conservative City Journal, think tank founder E.J. McMahon bemoaned upstate New York’s dwindling economy, pointing to the state’s environmental-quality-review laws and a ban on natural-gas pipelines, along with other “aggressively leftward” leaning “deep-green” policies imposed by Governor Andrew Cuomo, a Democrat. 

“These included the Climate Leadership and Community Protection Act,” McMahon wrote, “which will embolden the governor’s war on fossil-fuel infrastructure, along with his aggressive push for greater reliance on solar panels and offshore wind-turbine projects.”

After New York State banned hydraulic fracturing in 2014, a collection of towns in New York’s Southern Tier played with the idea of joining Pennsylvania, arguing that the ban threatened the towns’ sustainability by blocking them from their natural resources. 

Like most talks of secession, however, the plan did not gather any significant momentum.

Fahy posited that, more than the economic factors related to division of the state, “are the bonds and values that connect all New Yorkers from Buffalo to Albany, and from Plattsburgh to Montauk, in our pursuit of a more just, equitable, and inclusive state for all.”

 

Next steps

Currently, neither bill proposing the three-regions amendment has reached the floor of its respective chamber, as both are still in committee.

As Filkins did in her letter, Divide NYS is meanwhile encouraging local governments to pass home-rule resolutions that would force some degree of representative support. 

“If [local governments] follow the procedure of the home resolution,” Bergener of Divide NYS told The Enterprise, “which is they pass the resolution, and they send it to their senators and assemblymen … the senators and assemblymen are obligated to sponsor it. They’re not obligated to vote for it, just to sponsor it.”

Currently, the bills have a combined 18 cosponsors.

“It’s a grassroots effort,” Bergener said, “so the more grassroots effort you get from the people and representatives the more likely it will pass.”

“It’s going to be a very tough road to haul,” Tague said of the legislation’s passage, adding that if nothing else, it may force legislators to consider what he describes as their ignorance of the areas outside their region.

“I’m just here to say Upstate New York exists,” he said.

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