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GULF BETWEEN HIGGINS, NAPLES NOT SO WIDE

Brian M. Higgins and Nancy A. Naples have disagreed plenty in their race for Congress.

They attack each other over taxes.

He predicts she would be a rubber stamp for President Bush.

She calls him a rubber stamp for Assembly Speaker Sheldon Silver.

But despite their ads, a look at Higgins' Albany record and Naples' tenure in the Rath County Office Building reveals the split isn't as wide as might be expected between a Democratic assemblyman from South Buffalo and a Republican county comptroller with ties to Wall Street.

Consider the 19 Assembly bills monitored by a business lobby.

The New York State Business Council survey showed Higgins votes more in line with Assembly Republicans James P. Hayes of Amherst and Sandra Lee Wirth of Elma than with Assembly Democrats Sam Hoyt and Crystal Peoples of Buffalo.

Higgins also shares standing with the Republicans on the environment.

Higgins scored a 91 -- also the average score among Assembly Republicans -- when Environmental Advocates of New York tabulated legislators' scores based on their votes on 62 environmental bills this year. The typical Assembly Democrat scored a 97.

Naples seeks to win votes by saying Higgins votes the same as Silver.

"Higgins votes in lockstep with his party's leaders in Albany," an announcer says in her ad.

The Buffalo News reviewed 120 Assembly bills from the past several years and found Higgins and Silver voted the same way on 97 percent of them.

But even Republicans voted with Silver more than against him, the analysis showed. Hayes, for instance, voted with Silver on two-thirds of the 120 bills.

Among local Assembly Democrats, only Robin Schimminger of Kenmore broke ranks with Silver on more votes than Higgins.

Higgins broke with Silver by voting against a bill to ban .50-caliber weapons.

"I think the laws in place should be enforced," he said. "I'm skeptical when I look at new legislation, because I think New York is over-regulated to begin with."

Higgins also opposed Silver by voting against changing rules when decisions are made to build electric generating facilities. The bill would require more public input, additional health safeguards and state agencies to do more studies.

Higgins said he opposed the bill because he wants more power stations built to lessen downstate's reliance on the Niagara Power Project.

Of course, Higgins' ultimate rebuff to Silver came when he supported a 2000 coup attempt to install a new leader in the Assembly and to institute reforms. The effort failed.

"I think he deserves credit for taking a stand against conventional leadership in Sheldon Silver," said Andrew J. Rudnick, president of the Buffalo Niagara Partnership, a business advocacy group.

For her part, Naples has been at odds with other Republicans.

She issued a scathing audit of Republican County Executive Joel A. Giambra's handling of county furniture purchases. Naples said a company owned by James J. Spano, a close Giambra friend and fund-raiser, overcharged the county by almost $514,000.

"In my opinion, they owe the money -- period," she said upon the audit's release.

Giambra was angered by her blunt assessment.

A major theme in her campaign is her independence.

"The audits we issue are as tough as ever," Naples said when she declared her candidacy for a third term as comptroller in 2000. "Certainly, there are some Republicans not too happy with me."

Giambra was standing at her side when she said that.

But he did not show up when she declared her candidacy for Congress in May.

Naples said she now meets with Giambra's staff whenever she needs to and has complete access to the county budget director.

Officials from both parties have called the furniture audit credible and professional, but Democrats in the County Legislature say it also exposed a weakness.

The audit confirmed the key findings of a Buffalo News investigation that had already been published.

Majority Leader Lynn M. Marinelli, D-Town of Tonawanda, who's supporting Higgins, said she isn't sure Naples would have uncovered the furniture overspending on her own.

Marinelli, however, praised Naples for some of her warnings of potential problems over the Giambra administration's financial policies, such as growing overly dependent on reserves to balance its books. Her warnings usually come during the county's budget period.

In 2001, a report from then-State Comptroller H. Carl McCall backed Naples' warning that Giambra's 2002 budget would wipe out $63 million in reserves.

But legislators contend they don't hear enough from Naples and are blindsided whenever the Giambra administration announces a projected deficit.

"You get dribs and drabs of information if you get information at all," Marinelli said.

Marinelli, a county legislator since 1997, said Naples has called her only once.

"That's typical Lynn Marinelli politics," Naples said. "Nobody has ever been as responsive as I have been to them."

A representative from the comptroller's office regularly attends legislative meetings, she said.

Naples appears to have gained momentum by attacking Higgins for raising taxes.

"Raising the sales tax on what you buy," the announcer says in her ad. "Brian Higgins. Raising your taxes."

She justifies that ad by pointing to a revenue bill the Assembly passed in May 2003 raising taxes and fees by some $3.3 billion. Most of the new revenue came from a one-quarter penny increase in the state sales tax -- raising the combined state and county tax in Erie County to 8.25 pennies on the dollar -- and the imposition of a three-year income tax surcharge on wealthier residents.

But the ad doesn't mention something else.

The Republican State Senate joined the Democratic Assembly in passing that budget. The alternative, Higgins said, was Gov. George E. Pataki's proposal to raise the state sales tax by 1.25 pennies on the dollar. The governor's plan would have fallen heavier on the middle class and poor residents and forced local governments to increase property taxes, he said.

Still, Hayes calls that vote a philosophical test.

"Are you for higher taxes or aren't you?" Hayes asked.

"The one thing Higgins has never done is attempt to cut spending, and I think that's what he should be doing," Naples said.

Other bills Higgins supported would increase insurance premiums, payrolls and the county's Medicaid costs.

Higgins voted to:

Require insurance coverage for infertility treatments.

Expand the state's health coverage for the uninsured.

Raise the minimum wage to $7.25.

Naples chides Higgins for supporting a state takeover of New York City debt left from the 1970s fiscal crisis.

Pataki vetoed that bill because he said it would cost the state $170 million a year in sales tax revenues over the next 30 years. Higgins was among those voting to override Pataki's veto.

"He should represent New York City," declares the announcer in Naples' ad. "In the state Assembly, Brian Higgins voted to have our taxes pay off the city's debt."

The New York City debt financing bill also included some help for Buffalo: $20 million in spin-up aid to City Hall that Higgins said helped the city balance its budget and avoid a property tax increase and cut in services.

Buffalo was looking to close its own budget gap, and the bill helped close that gap further, Higgins said.

While the bill provided New York City a break on its debt service, it also allowed the city to increase its own taxes, Higgins said.

"The state's obligation to New York City could have been much higher had the state not given this authorization to the city to raise its own local taxes," he said.

e-mail: plakamp@buffnews.com

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