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Cuomo opponent seeks hearing on controversial tourism signs

John DeFrancisco, a Republican candidate for governor and the deputy Senate leader, speaks Monday at a news conference where he called for hearings on controversial tourism signs.
Karen DeWitt/WXXI News
John DeFrancisco, a Republican candidate for governor and the deputy Senate leader, speaks Monday at a news conference where he called for hearings on controversial tourism signs.

A Republican candidate for governor is calling for hearings on controversial tourism signs that the Cuomo administration set up on the New York State Thruway and other highways. The federal government said the signs are illegal and will withhold federal funds if they are not removed.

John DeFrancisco, a GOP candidate for governor and the deputy Senate leader, said he wants the state Legislature to hold hearings into the 514 tourism signs posted along numerous highways in the state.

The Federal Highway Administration said several years ago that the signs were potentially dangerous because the print is too small and might cause drivers to stop paying attention to the road. Cuomo’s aides disagreed with the federal concerns and kept erecting the signs. The FHA now says it will withhold $14 million in federal aid if the signs are not taken down by September.

DeFrancisco calls the signs, which he said cost taxpayers $8 million, a “vanity project” for the governor. He held a news conference on a cold winter morning beside some of the signs at the entrance to the Albany County Airport to make his point. 

“The governor does what he wants to do whenever he wants to, whether it’s right or wrong and whether it’s legal or illegal,” DeFrancisco said. “And in this case, it was illegal.”

According to the USA Today Network, the money for the signs came from emergency transportation funds, usually meant for emergency repairs to highways and bridges, and that contractors who worked on the signs were paid overtime in order to get them in place before the July 4 holiday in the summer of 2016.

Late on Friday, Cuomo’s acting commissioners of transportation and the Thruway Authority said the signs are going to come down this summer anyway because “the message has run its useful course.” They said new signs will be in compliance with the federal rules.

DeFrancisco isn’t buying the reasons for the signs’ removal.

“The governor is never wrong; he always finds somebody else to blame,” DeFrancisco said.

DeFrancisco said the state’s economic development agency, Empire State Development, should immediately reimburse the state’s transportation department, the Thruway Authority and the New York/New Jersey Port Authority for the cost of the signs.

A spokesman for the Department of Transportation said in a statement that the signage campaign “accomplished its five-year goal of enhancing the state’s $105 billion tourism industry.”

Spokesman Joseph Morrissey said that since the signs were put up, tourism increased by 18 percent and the economic impact of tourism jumped more than 20 percent.

He chided DeFrancisco, saying the senator voted for state budgets that included funding for the signs, and called DeFrancisco’s remarks “nonsensical grandstanding.”

That led DeFrancisco to question why a state agency was answering charges made by a political candidate, and whether that is a proper use of state funds.

A spokesman for the governor said it’s appropriate, because DeFrancisco is a sitting senator and is talking about a state program.

DeFrancisco also tried to tie the issue to the ongoing federal corruption trial of Cuomo’s former closest aide, Joe Percoco. In testimony, it was revealed that Percoco, while off the state payroll and running the governor’s 2014 re-election campaign, spent considerable time in the governor’s publicly funded offices.

"Now we know why Joe Percoco was allowed to operate out of the governor's office while no longer serving on the state payroll,” DeFrancisco said in a tweet. “Clearly, Andrew hasn't learned any lessons from the Percoco trial.”   

The governor has said he’s not commenting on the trial of his former aide until the proceedings are finished.

Karen DeWitt is Capitol Bureau chief for New York State Public Radio, a network of public radio stations in New York state. She has covered state government and politics for the network since 1990.