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Fate of new courthouse now in Reynolds' hands

WASHINGTON -- On Feb. 6, President Bush struck down the money for Buffalo's proposed federal courthouse. If ratified by our congressional delegation, Bush's budget would mark the third time construction will be delayed. Will it be the third strike?

The building is needed functionally, and for upgraded security in an era when defendants shoot up courtrooms. It has ranked first on the federal judiciary's national list of priority courthouse projects for the last three years.

Designed by one of the best architects in the world, the building would be a gleaming 21st century "signature" for Buffalo's historic Niagara Square.

This would be the largest building put up by the federal government in the region's history, and the third-largest public project -- promising to employ hundreds of construction workers.

The project has the strong support of the Buffalo Niagara Partnership, the voice of the region's corporate community, and the area's Bar Association.

But strangely, nothing was heard from Congress about this aspect of the Bush budget until two weeks ago. Then Sen. Charles E. Schumer persuaded senior Republicans to put $115 million for the building back into the spending plan.

The New York Democrat deftly talked Sen. Orrin Hatch, R-Utah, into going along because a courthouse job in Salt Lake City was among those restored.

It is now up to the House, which is to say that the fate of the Buffalo courthouse is now in the hands of Rep. Thomas M. Reynolds, R-Clarence. He's head of the party's congressional campaign, whose hand is on $20.8 million in campaign cash in this year's tense mid-term elections.

Reynolds sits at the elbow of House Speaker Dennis Hastert, R-Ill., during House GOP strategy sessions. Reynolds is no shrinking violet. Last year he defied the White House by advising House Republicans to put off voting for the president's Social Security revisions. Weeks ago, he strongly opposed the White House on the Dubai Ports World deal.

Rep. Brian M. Higgins, D-Buffalo, on March 8 privately asked Reynolds and Rep. Louise M. Slaughter, D-Fairport, to join him in a formal appropriations request. It was sent, as all such requests are down here, via email.

Reynolds and Slaughter chose not to sign on. They are presumably making appropriations requests this year, but not for the courthouse. Having waited in vain for their support, Higgins sent the request in just under the March 16 deadline.

The staffs of Reynolds and Slaughter murmured that the courthouse is not in their districts, physically, but in Higgins'. However, the courthouse by statute serves 17 western counties, all the way east past Rochester and down to the Pennsylvania line.

After Slaughter and Reynolds received press calls following the passage of Schumer's amendment, they sent letters of support to House appropriators for all scheduled courthouse construction, especially Buffalo's. Slaughter's letter was dated March 20.

For me, the gold standard for rescuing a Western New York project was set in 1981 by then Sen. Alfonse M. D'Amato, R-N.Y. The massive West Valley Demonstration Project at Ashford Hollow was about to be sidetracked by President Ronald Reagan.

D'Amato summoned Reagan's energy secretary to a Western New York delegation meeting in the Capitol and, behind closed doors, read him out in Howard Stern language. The cabinet member emerged red-faced and sweating from every pore, but West Valley was restored.

There's no need to resort to D'Amato's tactics or vulgarity. All these large egos came together when the Niagara Falls Air Reserve Station was threatened last year. Legislators are district-centered or they are not. What happens shows who and what they care about.

e-mail: dturner@buffnews.com