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MISPLACED PRIORITIES <br> VOLKER EITHER KILLED A BILL TO HELP WNY OR, INCREDIBLY, WANTS PEOPLE TO THINK HE DID

State Sen. Dale Volker has put himself in a position only a masochist could enjoy. The Republican from Depew either caused a delay that has put at risk tens of thousands of jobs in the region he represents, or he didn't cause it but wants people to think he did. The choice is between subversion and absurdity. Neither paints a flattering picture.

Volker is nothing if not a man of the institution he serves. He has been a senator since winning a special election in 1975, and he defends the chamber -- and his role there -- passionately. With more than a quarter-century in office, he sees himself as an elder statesman of the Senate, perhaps believing that he has more clout than he does.

The issue burst into public just this week, after Volker sent a remarkable letter to his Republican colleague, Sen. Mary Lou Rath. In it, Volker takes credit for having sabotaged a bill to extend what is known as "replacement power" -- inexpensive electricity from the Niagara Power Project delivered to certain industries in Western New York.

The measure passed in the Assembly, but in his letter, Volker says it was he, and not Senate Majority Leader Joseph Bruno, who saw to it that the bill was shelved in his chamber. The reason: to help a North Country senator who wants the measure to also protect similarly cheap electricity from the hydropower plant on the St. Lawrence River.

Many observers in business and politics doubt that Volker actually was responsible for the delay, despite his claim. Among them is Sen. George Maziarz, R-Lockport, who sponsored the bill. "Dale Volker does not have the ability to either push my legislation through or hold it up," Maziarz said.

Nevertheless, it is hard not to take a senator at his word when he brags about having done something to damage his constituents, and Western New York business leaders are appropriately infuriated. Commercial electric rates in this state are some of the highest in the nation; it is intolerable for regional companies to have to contemplate losing the inexpensive power provided by the Niagara plant simply so Volker can play Father Christmas to New Yorkers he doesn't represent.

Volker blithely insists in his letter that the matter of replacement power will be attended to after next week's election. But what if it's not? It may well happen, to be sure, but Volker is not as omniscient as he might like to believe. In 1999, he insisted that the Senate would make sure the state's counties would not have to pay for part of the newly enacted Family Health Plus insurance program. He was wrong; the counties got stuck with part of the bill -- more than $19 million alone for Erie County over the past three years. It wasn't until this past session that the state agreed to take over the counties' cost for that program -- and then only for two years.

There are times when lawmakers who represent only a part of New York need to consider the state as a whole. In the main, though, legislators need to represent their constituents, not someone else's. Either Volker ignored that political commandment or he wants people to think he did.

In any other state, such recklessness would court voter repudiation. But this is New York, and Volker has no opponent in Tuesday's election. About all you can do is shake your head.

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