John Bergener, Jr. is a retired IT guy who lives in Latham, a suburb of Albany. He's also active with the Upstate Conservative Coalition, and lately he has been taking calls from reporters thanks to his involvement with a group called the Divide New York Caucus. The caucus doesn't have regular meetings, and Bergener said he doesn't know how many people are involved, but it is supposedly active in a third of upstate's 53 (according to its definition) counties. What got the attention of Albany's Times-Union, the Finger Lake Times, and Gothamist, among others, is its mission: to sever New York state above Westchester County from the state's economic engine, New York City and its suburbs.
Theirs is far from the first such proposal, but the specifics are novel. Because actual secession would require legislative and congressional approval, the group is pushing for a constitutional amendment. New Yorkers get the opportunity to vote for a constitutional convention every 20 years and, wouldn't you know it, the next chance is 2017. The proposed amendment would split the state into two autonomous regions while maintaining a token state government with no real power, sidestepping those currently in office. The regions would then be free to rip up existing budgets and rewrite the tax code and "regional" laws at will.
The city and its suburbs pay billions more to the state in tax money than they receive, so this could have its advantages for downstate. But Bergener claims upstaters don't need our stinking money, and that upstate's vast, sparsely populated region dotted by post-industrial cities actually needs lower taxes, because the current system is keeping businesses away.
The campaign has drawn support from gun rights and pro-fracking activists upstate, and a Brooklynite is promoting his own version through a Change.org petition (he wants to call the new downstate region "Gotham," which admittedly would be great for our brand).
Bergener's fellow board members are all also retired, giving them ample time to refine the platform, considering such burning questions as the New York City water supply (we'd get to continue owning it) and whether to support a dormant Long Island secession campaign (they're for it).
Yesterday we gave Bergener a ring to get more information on the plan, and why he thinks he can up and take the name New Amsterdam from us.
This interview has been edited for length and clarity.
Do you mind explaining your role with the group Divide New York and how it operates? Divide New York State Caucus is a New York state political committee. We were formed about a year ago. Before that we were operating informally. Our roots go back about seven years.
How did you get started? We were talking about various ways of trying to solve the lack of jobs upstate. And we couldn't find anyway to do it without lessening the regulations the upstate government imposes on us. Since they're never going to change, the only option is to break away. It never happens because you have to have Congress approve it, and Congress isn't going to give the Northeast two more Senate seats in the foreseeable future.
Because the Western states are so much bigger than us, they think the states in the Northeast are too small already, especially New England. So we looked into it further and we discovered we could divide ourselves into regions, because that's not forming a new state. It's just autonomous regions. Internally, a state can give any powers to local government it wishes.
What is your view on Start Up NY, Cuomo's plan to give tax breaks to lure businesses here? What that basically is, is a form of crony capitalism. If you have the proper connections, you can be exempted from the property tax and the income tax. And if you don't have the proper connections, you can't.
So it will help a little bit, probably. It hasn't yet, though. It will help a few start-ups here and there. But the only way you can get businesses to come in here currently is you have to exempt them from all the taxes and regulations you normally impose. In a densely populated area, if you impose those regulations, there's enough side business that makes it worthwhile to make a company locate. But when it's not densely populated, the same regulations kill you.
What has the response been like so far? Extremely good. We've got a lot of groups that have been in support of us now, and we got invited to a rally in Bainbridge this Sunday that was very successful. A lot of the people that were thinking of seceding to Pennsylvania decided that our idea was more workable, because if you move a town from one state to another, you also have to get congressional approval. Our plan doesn't, and we have the option of bypassing the state legislature if we have to.
Buffalo is very hot right now with millennials; this view could be yours in the prosperous new autonomous region of New Amsterdam! (Jordan G. Teicher / Gothamist)
As far as the economic impact, I've seen the argument— Which study?
The Rockefeller Institute study [that shows the city pays out 45 percent of the state's taxes and gets just 40 percent back] [pdf]. Well first of all, they're apples and oranges.
How so? They're talking about starting a new state.
The Rockefeller study isn't so much about starting a new state as it is how tax money is distributed within the state currently. Well, under our plan, expensive things like pensions would stay unchanged at the token state level, because they were an obligation that both regions owe. Also, we would release all localities from any mandate that wasn't approved at the regional level, which would allow a lot lower property taxes.
As far as the study, it looks like the big disproportionate state funding towards upstate is in general purpose, which covers a lot of stuff, including housing, courts, and economic development, and also roads. I was wondering how the new regions plan would cope with the loss of that. Like I said, some costs are going to remain at the state level, so that makes a difference. The other thing is [the Rockefeller Institute] draws the line differently. The income we have with the line as it's currently positioned [at Westchester County] would make us compatible with the economic system in Vermont—we'd have more income than Vermont does. And they maintain their roads.
It's a redistribution. A lot of the things that are currently done, the unfunded mandates, raise the cost of everything. It costs a lot more to repair a road in New York than it does in Vermont or Pennsylvania. The excuse they always give is [upstaters] can't afford to support ourselves. Well the economic development part, the reason they have to spend so much money for economic development upstate is because the business taxes are so high.
Also, to open a business you currently have to go to like six different state agencies, depending on your type of business, to get all your required permits. Then you have to do two or three local [permits]. Whereas there's no reason the Commerce Department couldn't handle all business permits and just pass them on to the other agencies.
We would also want to eliminate duplicate elections. If you're an upstate voter, you have to vote five or six times a year. You have the primary election. You have the general election. You have the fire district election. You have the school election. And in some places, if you're in the village, you have the village election. And they're all held at different times. And of course there's the federal primary in June.
I take it you'd want to streamline that under the new system. Right. There's a host of others, but that's one.
Do you have a background in politics or in activism that brought you to this point? I used to be a neighborhood association president years ago. But not really much of a background in politics. A little.
Are you surprised by the level of media interest in this? I didn't think we'd get this far so quickly, no. It's because the plan actually will work. And it actually will bypass the powers that be.
Is there a dominant feature of this that is appealing to people? I know people came to the rally with a lot of different reasons for wanting to be involved. The current system isn't working for upstate. In some ways it doesn't work for downstate, too, because a lot of major issues are blocked by the legislature. Like I know rent control is always modified by the legislature based on state pressure. I'm sure there are other cases of that.
Yeah, I could rattle off a few. Have you heard from any politicians about this proposal? I’m not allowed to say.
I was wondering how you guys can claim New Amsterdam when that was the original name of the city of New York. It's very simple: New Amsterdam was New York before it got messed up. Back when it was mostly virgin land.
The city or the state? Both.
And what about the Native American people who were here? Well, I would assume the Native American people that were here probably didn't like colonists taking over, but that's history.
So you're not proposing an actual recreation of the conditions of this area in the 1600s. [Soft-spoken up to this point, Bergener bursts out laughing] That's a good one. No, of course not. That's a good joke, though. I'll have to use that the next time I do a speech, if you don't mind.
You can't rewrite history. There's good and bad in all history. What you try to do is strive forward from today and improve things. We feel this would improve things. It would make things much clearer. Theoretically there would be fewer fights between groups, because most of the densely populated areas would have different needs than the sparsely populated areas.
A rule that works well in a densely populated area doesn't always work well in a sparsely populated area. When your nearest neighbor is 300, 400 feet away, you care less what they do with their land than if they're four feet from you.
Do you feel like the needs of places like Buffalo and Rochester and Syracuse and Albany would be represented in this new formation? Yes they would. Because one of the major problems we have is most families that have adult children, their kids have to move out of state to find a good-paying job.
If you go down in New York, in Manhattan area, it seems like it's a much younger city than if you come up to Albany, or Buffalo, or Rochester. And that's because a good certain portion of the young people have had to relocate.
Consider the gauntlet laid. (Divide New York Caucus)
A few probably have, yeah.
Would you describe your aims as ultimately libertarian? Our aims are to create two regions. I wouldn't phrase it any other way. Every one of those words has good and bad meanings depending on your point of view. And our goal is to create two autonomous regions and hopefully benefit both of them.
Clearly there are things about the plan that would benefit the New York City area, but do you have a pitch tailored to a city audience? You wouldn't have to send as many tax dollars upstate because we'd keep our own and be able to attract businesses to produce our own. I don't really have a pitch. I'm not much of a pitch man. It'd be helpful if I was one.
What would happen to the tolls collected on the New York Thruway? Public authorities across the regional boundary would be divided by the appropriate region. So there would be a New Amsterdam Thruway and a New York Thruway, and each one would handle its own tolls. If an authority is totally within a region, then that region gets full control over that authority. We made one exception for Metro Railroad North [sic], we just put that at the token state level.
Is there any particular reason? That has to run as one thing. You couldn't draw a line and say, "Okay, we change engineers here." That would be insane.
The makers of this flyer have got it backwards. (Divide New York)
[Downstaters] could put that on their license plate, too. We could have two people claiming to be the best region. Or they could just leave their license plate as New York if they wanted to. Usually wherever you live you consider it the best. It's subjective.
Sure. Similarly, on one of the flyers for the rally, it depicts a beaver and says the roots shouldn't be feeding the tree, the tree being New York City, and the implication being that New York City doesn't create the resources that it uses. And I was wondering if you could explain what's behind that. I'm not the author of that, so I don't know.
Do you agree with that sentiment? I like the political cartoon. It's a very nice artist. I really hadn't thought about it much. We're a distributed organization; we all have a common goal; and we all have different ways of getting about it. And I can't answer every piece of this, unfortunately.