Share this article

print logo

Hopes for Falls air base rise in bill to save jobs

The Air National Guard unit based in Niagara Falls could see its odds of survival increase a bit more this week, thanks to legislation being drawn up by the House Armed Services Committee.

Wednesday, the committee will consider a defense authorization bill that would save 2,373 of the 5,100 Air National Guard positions nationwide that the Air Force has proposed eliminating.

On the face of it, the House legislation is only a modest improvement from what Defense Secretary Leon E. Panetta offered two weeks ago, when he proposed saving 2,183 of the 5,100 Guard slots.

But the 190 additional Guard slots in the House bill could be just the beginning.

Lawmakers including Rep. Kathleen C. Hochul, D-Amherst, plan to offer amendments that would further curtail the proposed Air National Guard cuts, which have infuriated governors nationwide who are concerned about their potential impact on disaster-response efforts.

Describing the bill the panel will consider as "a starting point," Hochul -- who sought a position on the committee to defend the Niagara Falls base -- said: "I will be offering an amendment that helps strengthen our position."

That position starts out as a relatively weak one, just because the Air Force's original fiscal 2013 budget plan called for eliminating the mission of the 107th Airlift Wing, the Air National Guard unit based in Niagara Falls. That move would eliminate 845 jobs, including 540 part-time Guard positions.

But the 107th's odds of survival took a turn upward in Panetta's proposal, and look slightly better still under the House bill, given that it calls for a slightly larger Air National Guard.

"It's a trend that's positive," Hochul said.

Neither the Panetta plan nor the House bill spells out which units would get the additional Guard slots.

And the House bill cannot do that because of recent rules banning "earmarks."

"We're not able to target where any restorations will go," Hochul said.

Instead, she and perhaps other lawmakers can push to expand the number of Air National Guard slots in the bill, in the hope that some of those slots will end up in Niagara Falls.

The House markup is just one step in a long legislative process.

The Senate Armed Services Committee will mark up its version of the legislation later this month, and Sen. Kirsten E. Gillibrand, D-N.Y., is working on language in that bill that could benefit the Niagara Falls base.

Once the House and Senate complete their bills, a conference committee will have to reconcile the differences. And then the Pentagon will have to shape the Air National Guard along the lines called for in the final bill.

"We remain positive as we go through the process," said John A. Cooper Sr., vice chairman of the Niagara Military Affairs Council, or NIMAC, the community group backing the air base.

He said the process so far reminded him of the 2005 proposal to close the Niagara Falls base, which local lawmakers and NIMAC managed to overturn.

"It's something that kind of generates a lot of ups and downs as this moves back and forth," Cooper said.