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STATE LAWMAKERS TURN THEIR ATTENTION TO UPSTATE -- WHERE HELP IS NEEDED

Upstate lawmakers finally got their wish. Now the test will be whether they and Gov. George E. Pataki can deliver.

A year ago, state legislators from Western New York and elsewhere north of Westchester County were hoping the region, which has lagged behind downstate's economic turnaround, would get special attention from Pataki and legislative leaders in Albany. It didn't happen.

But nowadays at the Capitol, the new buzzword has become "upstate." Suddenly, it's fashionable for everyone from Manhattan Democrats, led by Assembly Speaker Sheldon Silver, of Manhattan, to Pataki to pepper their speeches with "upstate" references and pledges of how they are going to help the region's more sluggish economy.

After years of critics saying he was trying to ignore the dire employment and population statistics that were telling the story of the upstate economy, Pataki in his January State of the State address offered a shopping list of economic proposals -- from cutting energy costs for upstate manufacturers to offering state financial incentives for urban job expansions.

"I'm happy that the governor is returning to his upstate orientation and putting his own focus on our unique needs," said Assemblyman Robin Schimminger, D-Kenmore, chairman of the Assembly commerce and economic development committee.

Political cynics at the Capitol believe the governor's northward vision has more to do with trying to hold onto his base of upstate Republican support as he considers a re-election bid in two years.

But Schimminger believes the Republican governor is merely looking at the facts. "I think it's happening because it is simply undeniable that the upstate economy is lagging the rest of the state and the governor has properly come to that recognition," he said.

Besides the governor's agenda for the coming session, Western New York lawmakers say they are being told, once again, to bring two items back home by the end of session: money and tax cuts.

In the money category, there are the usual hands-out requests from cultural groups, civic associations, local governments and schools. Lawmakers know they also might have to try to push for money for a new Buffalo Convention Center, if officials in that debate ever settle on where and whether new facility should be built. "The convention center is running into the typical Buffalo problem, which is we have conflicting interests and that one is not going to be an easy one to resolve," said Sen. Dale Volker, R-Lancaster.

Besides the convention center, which would require financial help from Albany, Volker said the city's Inner Harbor project also will be on the list of items needing money from the Capitol. Additionally, getting firms from the region, especially the area's fledgling biotechnology industry, included on the funding list as part of a new state agency created to bring high-technology jobs upstate will be another priority for area lawmakers, the veteran Republican said.

Lawmakers also hope there will be some action on General Motors' possible expansion of its Tonawanda engine plant. The plant became an issue in last fall's county executive race when former county executive Dennis T. Gorski insisted the $500 million deal was done. GM officials then cautioned the plans were still preliminary and that other sites were still under consideration.

"I wish all those allegations were true," Volker said of Gorski's claims of a done deal. "I know we're one of the finalists, but by no means have we been guaranteed anything."

On the tax cut front, Republicans and Democrats from the region appear united in their push to get the gross-receipts tax on energy eliminated. The hidden tax raises all energy bills by 3.25 percent a year, which big users of electricity, such as manufacturers, say puts them at a competitive disadvantage with companies in other states. Both Pataki and Senate Majority Leader Joseph Bruno, R-Brunswick, have called for its elimination this year.

"I believe the GRT for all sorts of reasons is maybe the most important state tax issue," Volker said of a tax he said particularly hits high-energy-using areas upstate.

Silver has dismissed claims that killing the GRT is the economic answer its backers suggest. He said a more comprehensive, energy-cost-cutting plan should be adopted. Schimminger said that it's fine if Silver wants to cut energy costs, but any plan should at least start with getting rid of the GRT. "If everyone can agree on reducing and eliminating the GRT, let's just get on with it," he said.

Lawmakers say they also will push to get targeted tax cuts for upstate. Pataki proposed tax incentives, for instance, for companies that add jobs in upstate cities. Schimminger said North Carolina and Georgia already target some business tax cuts based on a region's job growth and unemployment levels.

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