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VOLKER CLAIMS HE DELAYED BILL ON CHEAP HYDROPOWER

The most senior state lawmaker from Western New York has claimed responsibility for delaying this year a bill to ensure the flow of cheap electricity for dozens of the region's manufacturers because he wanted to assist companies elsewhere in the state to get their own low-cost power.

The admission by Sen. Dale M. Volker, R-Depew, has angered local business leaders, who say the lawmaker's position could jeopardize jobs in a region that can ill afford to lose any more of its manufacturing base.

Presently, 66 companies employing more than 20,000 workers tap into this low-cost electricity, and many of these firms are making decisions in the next two months about whether to make investments in Western New York or China, according to a sponsor of the bill Volker delayed.

Volker wrote to a colleague earlier this week that he was behind the delay.

"As you know, I was responsible for the delay in finalizing replacement power, because I made an agreement with Adirondack and Central New York people to try to help them as they are in much greater economic trouble than we are," he wrote. He said the issue will be resolved after the elections.

The head of the region's biggest business lobby sharply criticized Volker. "It's a candid statement that one would think would be an admission of disservice to our regional economy and its employers," said Andrew J. Rudnick, president of the 3,000-member Buffalo Niagara Partnership. "But it seems to be taken as something much more positive by Senator Volker, as unbelievable as that seems."

The legislation, continuing a near-50 year agreement for cheaper Niagara Falls hydropower for certain companies, died this summer after lawmakers from northern New York sought to carve out a similar deal for companies getting power from a St. Lawrence River facility. If the Niagara power deal isn't extended when it expires next year, businesses say, they will be forced to locate some operations elsewhere.

"Joe Bruno did not make that decision. I did," Volker said of Senate Majority Leader Joseph L. Bruno, a Rensselaer County Republican.

Volker did not return calls to comment.

The issue involves "replacement power." In 1957, Congress approved the Niagara Power Project to replace Niagara Mohawk's Schoellkopf Power Plant, which was destroyed in a landslide. The law also required the sale of 450,000 kilowatts of "replacement power" to companies that had previously purchased power from Schoellkopf.

It costs the companies getting this power less than 2 cents per hour, 60 percent below the national average.

The replacement power provision expires next year, and companies say they need to make decisions soon that involve whether the cheap power will still be available.

The legislation for the Western New York power was sponsored by Sen. George D. Maziarz, R-North Tonawanda, but it was derailed when Sen. James W. Wright, a Watertown Republican who heads the Senate's energy committee, earlier this year demanded that northern New York companies be eligible for cheap power. It would require 490 megawatts of power created by the St. Lawrence plant to be available to companies within 60 miles of the facility.

The Senate, with Wright's amendment, passed the bill in June. But the Assembly balked, insisting on separate bills to deal with what lawmakers insisted were different circumstances and agreements.

Majority Leader Paul A. Tokasz, D-Cheektowaga, sponsor of the Assembly bill, declined to comment on Volker's letter. He said the Assembly is ready to work with the Senate on "minor adjustments" and that his house wants a final bill this year. The Assembly passed the Niagara stand-alone bill in summer.

"I'm stunned that Dale would seek to delay the bill," said Assemblywoman Francine DelMonte, D-Niagara Falls, a driving force behind the bill.

Maziarz, along with Sen. Mary Lou Rath, R-Williamsville, a few weeks ago wrote Bruno to press for passage of the stand-alone Niagara bill when the Senate returns to Albany later this month. They said firms have said decisions are being made in the next two months about whether to make manufacturing investments in Western New York or China.

Maziarz said Wright, not Volker, "has been holding this up" as "leverage" to try to get the Assembly to back the St. Lawrence River power provision.

"That's usually the way the Assembly does business. We should not be doing that. We should have passed the Niagara bill a long time ago, and we will pass the Niagara bill despite Senator Volker's reservations," he said.

Wright asked Volker for help "in making sure we didn't have a situation where a large delegation (from Western New York) tried to take advantage of a small delegation."

Wright said he wants the same access to cheap power for his businesses as lawmakers from Western New York want for theirs. He said Assembly members from Western New York have "chosen to be parochial and regional."

"Why should one region have exclusivity and not the other?" he said.

Kelly Brannen, chairman of Power for Economic Prosperity, which represents 24 companies that get the low-cost power, called Volker's letter "disappointing."

Rudnick said that as a result of Volker's letter the business community has no choice "but to work around Senator Volker" to get the legislation resolved.

Related story on B1.

e-mail: tprecious@buffnews.com

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