New York should buy ventilators, not crony “green” deals

Ross Marchand

April 7, 2020

This article was originally published in The Center Square on April 6, 2020.

In the midst of the Coronavirus pandemic, dozens of governors and hundreds of local officials have shown critical foresight and invested the necessary resources into healthcare and emergency response. But, the true mark of a leader is not only what they do during a crisis but also how they prepared ahead of time.

The pandemic has exposed skewed priorities and wasteful spending that should have been devoted toward procuring critical healthcare supplies. Case in point: New York Gov. Andrew Cuomo handing Elon Musk $750 million to build a solar plant when the money could have been used for more important purposes such as preparing for a pandemic. Keeping the Empire State safe from the coronavirus means saying no to crony “green” deals that harm taxpayers and consumers.

As of early April, there have been more than 80,000 cases of the coronavirus reported in New York state with nearly 2,000 fatalities. The state has a well-documented shortage of ventilators and Cuomo told reporters on March 24 that New York will need at least 30,000 ventilators to keep up with the dramatic influx of patients. State officials have even suggested that patients share these breathing machines despite the warnings of lung doctors that this is a risky strategy. New York’s ventilator shortfall was foreseen in a 2015 state task force report, which warned of the surge of patients that would need access to these machines in the case of a severe influenza pandemic.

The report – titled “Ventilator Allocation Guidelines” – found that New York would face a shortage of nearly 16,000 ventilators during the worst week of a hypothetical, severe scenario. While New York had been purchasing 2,000 ventilators a year since 2007, the report estimated that there were only about 2,000 vacant machines statewide. On the eve of the pandemic, New York’s per capita ventilator availability was below the national average despite the state’s reputation of having some of the best hospitals in the world.

The Cuomo administration could’ve considered the findings of the task force and used his state’s budget to close the ventilator gap between New York and the rest of the country. But, the governor had other priorities, like lavishing subsidies on Tesla to produce solar panels. In 2014, the company’s infamous CEO, Musk, promised New York 3,000 high-paying, high-tech jobs in the Buffalo area (and 5,000 well-paid jobs statewide) in return for $750 million in taxpayer subsidies from Albany. New York gladly obliged and threw in the funds to help Tesla build its Giga New York factory in Buffalo.

But the state quietly watered down the 3,000 high-tech job requirement to 1,460 jobs of any kind by April 30, 2020. Tesla is claiming that they have met this inexcusably low bar, but that seems improbable since they only had around 1,100 workers up in Buffalo as of February. In other words, New York taxpayers have paid more than $680,000 for each job “created,” though layoffs are likely after Panasonic withdrew its partnership with Tesla (in February) to produce solar panels at the Giga New York facility.

Musk’s project is part of a larger effort Cuomo has advanced known as the “Buffalo Billion.” But there are more than a few wrinkles. In 2015, federal prosecutors issued subpoenas asking for documents that describe how these taxpayer-funded projects were awarded as part of Cuomo’s “Buffalo Billion.”

Instead of spending all of these taxpayer dollars on failed job promises and blatant corruption and bid rigging, Cuomo could have purchased 30,000 ventilators to fill the current shortage.

Even if Albany didn’t have the foresight to increase New York’s healthcare capacity, simply giving the money back to taxpayers would’ve been a far better move than enriching politically connected CEOs like Musk. The health care sector is about one sixth of the New York economy, and letting hard-working residents keep their own money will inevitably result in increased health investments.

Elected officials have an obligation to learn from yesterday’s mistakes and do better going forward. Cuomo and his counterparts across 49 other states should pledge to cut wasteful spending and tend to necessities such as health care and emergency response. Surely New York would be better off with more ventilators instead of failed, crony schemes.