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Queens Senator Could Kill Cuomo's Amazon Deal: 'This Is Not A Dictatorship'

In November, New York State Sen. Michael Gianaris, center, calls on supporters to remove the Amazon app from their phones and boycott the compony, as he address a coalition rally and press conference
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In November, New York State Sen. Michael Gianaris, center, calls on supporters to remove the Amazon app from their phones and boycott the compony, as he address a coalition rally and press conference Bebeto Matthews/AP/Shutterstock

Aside from two contentious but toothless City Council hearings, Amazon has not had to clear many hurdles in its quest to build a new campus in Long Island City with $3 billion in state and city tax subsidies. That may change once the plan hits the Public Authorities Control Board, a group of five appointees who must unanimously approve projects that derive from an array of state authorities, including the one that is allowing Amazon to bypass local oversight. On Monday, Queens State Senator Michael Gianaris, Amazon's primary antagonist, was nominated by Senate Majority Leader Andrea Stewart-Cousins to sit on the PACB, which would give him the veto power necessary to scuttle the deal.

Gianaris's appointment still has to be approved by Governor Andrew Cuomo, whose communications director released a furious statement, claiming that "the Senate Democrats oppose the 25,000 to 40,000 new technology jobs" Amazon is promising to create, and all but demanding them to fall in line.

Cuomo's Empire State Development Corporation, the state authority shepherding the deal through, told Gothamist in November that the land-use plan for Amazon would need PACB approval. The $505 million grant the state is giving Amazon would not, nor would the $1.2 billion in Excelsior Jobs Program credits that Amazon could potentially get. (The remaining $1.8 billion Amazon is getting from the city is coming from two separate “as of right” tax credit programs, meaning any large corporation could have gotten them automatically.)

"The state, through Empire Development Corporation, will do a project plan that will be approved by what’s called the PACB," Cuomo told Brian Lehrer late last year.

But on January 17th, Lehrer asked the governor about whether the Amazon deal would need PACB approval.

"This is another policy by tweet," Cuomo responded. "There are very few companies that come to New York or stay in New York, that has the highest taxes in the state of New York, without an incentive program."

Senator Gianaris, who initially supported Amazon coming to New York City, told Gothamist on Monday night that he had not spoken to the governor about his appointment, but that he hopes he is confirmed.

"The governor suggests that it’s not going to ever hit the desk of the PACB, which makes his aggressive reaction very curious," Gianaris said.

The senator would not say if he would vote for or against the current plan, but made his opinion about it clear.

"The deal that has been presented is so bad for New York that it should not be a foundation off of which we negotiate," Gianaris said.

Would Gianaris vote for the deal if Amazon came back to the table and made concessions? What if they offered to pay for half of Andy Byford's $40 billion Fast Forward plan to fix and modernize the subway?

"Amazon has not shown a willingness to engage in very real conversations about anything," the senator replied. "This community is not interested in getting bought off. If they want to have a conversation about how the neighborhood they’re proposing to transform would be protected, when we are already being gentrified out of existence, when the subways can’t handle the people that already live there, when the parents are fighting over each other over kindergarten seats in the schools—this deal would further stress all of those things."

He added, "If they want to throw that deal in the garbage and have a new conversation, that’s a different issue."

It's unclear when the Amazon deal would even reach the PACB. According to the Memorandum of Understanding between Amazon, the city, and the state, the parties have until March 11th of 2019 to conduct due diligence, and the ESD is supposed to approve it in November of 2019.

David Friedfel, the director of state studies at the Citizens Budget Commission, said that even if Cuomo and Amazon can avoid the PACB, portions of the plan will have to pass through the state legislature.

"If the governor decides to approve the capital grant in some way through the budget process, there’s a chance that it wouldn’t have to go through PACB, but definitely overall, it’s going to need some time of legislative approval," he said.

Friedfel also pointed out that the state legislature is going to have to vote on whether to raise the monetary cap and the duration of the Excelsior Jobs Program to meet Amazon's targets. And the PACB also approves many grants that legislators rely on for their districts. Add to all this, Governor Cuomo's announcement on Monday that the state is seeing declining tax revenue, "it may make it so those allocations are a little bit harder to come by."

"I think it makes the political calculation a little different and it also makes the horsetrading a little more challenging, if that was going to be how to get the agreement passed."

Even if Gianaris or another PACB appointee scuttles the Amazon deal, the trillion-dollar company could just go through the city's Uniform Land Use Review Procedure (ULURP), like any other developer. Amazon declined to comment.

Asked whether he wants Amazon proceed through ULURP, Gianaris replied, "There has been no discussion, no representation of people who represent these communities locally in this process. Whether that’s me on the PACB, or the City Council, or something."

He added, "This is not a dictatorship, whether the governor likes it or not, someone other than him is going to opine on this deal. Whether it’s this, or the legislature next year, there will be an opportunity for people to be heard on this and they will be heard."

[UPDATE 12:16 p.m.] The governor was on The Brian Lehrer Show this morning, and said it was "unfortunate that the Senate is playing politics here" with Gianaris's appointment.

"Yes, it's great politically to oppose the Amazon deal. It's Jeff Bezos, one of the richest people, why are we giving him a break, he should be paying more than anybody else, I'm against it. Governmentally, on the facts, put aside the symbolism. Especially in light of what we just have seen, we need to diversify our economy."

Lehrer followed up: would the governor oppose Gianaris's seat?

"Well we're not there yet. I don't even know, depending on the exact design of the transaction will depend on the approvals we need."

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