The Edifice Complex

The late Governor Nelson Rockefeller used to be accused of having an “Edifice Complex.” He rebuilt Albany as well as the State University system. He loved to build things at great cost to the taxpayers and he wasn’t alone. President Eisenhower built the federal highway system on which we all depend. The master builder, Robert Moses, did the same thing in New York state and constructed parks and playgrounds and the like. FDR rebuilt the country as a way out of the Great Depression. Politicians who build get the construction unions as big fans and major contributors. As a political strategy it really can be a help to the political actor. Clearly, the whole question of financing the projects can be vexing but when you really consider it, there is not much of a problem. Just think about how we buy our homes. Most people don’t put down cash on the barrel head. They get a mortgage. You pay so much down and then so much a month, often for the next 30 years. In the case of politicians who hold office, they know that down the road, paying the bill will eventually be someone else’s problem. The politician gets the credit but his successors will have to find the money to pay the bankers for the bonds that have been floated.

Take Governor Andrew Cuomo. Two of his major construction initiatives have grabbed the headlines. First, there is the Tappan Zee Bridge project. While there is always conflict over construction projects, there can be little doubt that the Tappan Zee needed to be replaced. So Cuomo made it happen. He announced the replacement but he really never told us how he was going to pay for it. In at least one case, he asked the federal government to help pay with funds that had been earmarked for environmental remediation. Apparently the feds didn’t agree that money should be forthcoming and Andrew was not happy. Since Andrew has built his reputation on a policy of no tax increases, this could prove risky. After all, if the taxpayers have to pay off the bonds, the state will either have to do with less money for other services, or raise taxes, something that Andrew is loath to do.

Of course, there is always the federal route. Andrew has a big admirer in Vice President Joe Biden who recently said at another unveiling that Cuomo was the best governor in the United States. While there are New Yorkers who might argue with the VP’s assessment of Cuomo, Biden has immense sway in things federal and may be able to pull the rabbit out of the hat for the Tappan Zee project. So far, Cuomo is staying fairly mum on financing. There are many who believe that one way or another, the Cuomo name will be attached to the new bridge.

The occasion for Biden’s laudatory remarks on Cuomo was the announcement that the feds would help come up with the billions of dollars required for the reconstruction of LaGuardia Airport. This is going to be another huge project. The crowded and worn out terminal buildings will be torn down and the replacements will be moved closer to the Grand Central Parkway. This will make for improved landing strips and more efficiency in handling the large amount of air traffic coming into LaGuardia.

Since LaGuardia handles a good deal of the internal traffic in the United States, and since it is a major New York City airport, the project will bring praise to Cuomo. All of us who use the airport will see this as an important move. Of course, JFK and Newark are also difficult airports. Maybe they’ll be next.

In any case, these are both projects that Nelson Rockefeller would have been proud of. Cuomo has certainly enhanced his reputation with the Edifice Strategy.

Originally published in the Legislative Gazette, 8/3/15
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