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Political brawl erupts over insurance vote

A down-and-dirty political brawl broke out at Tuesday's Niagara County Legislature meeting, with the Democratic minority accusing Republicans of trying to rob Legislator Sean J. O'Connor of part of his health insurance.

The Republicans rammed the measure through on a 10-9 vote, with most of the older members voting no, including four Republicans who will lose thousands of dollars if they stay in office long enough.

The resolution by Majority Leader Richard E. Updegrove, R-Lockport, revised the rules for postretirement health insurance for legislators who serve 20 or more years in office.

Those still in office who were first elected before 2004 will have to pay 50 percent of their premiums if they make it to the 20-year mark.

The move doesn't affect 20-year lawmakers who leave office this year or those already out of office. Their premiums are still free. Legislators who were first elected in 2003 or later are no longer eligible forpost-retirement health coverage because of a resolution passed in 2004.

The measure has an immediate impact on O'Connor, D-Niagara Falls, who has served 22 years under the old rules but who would have to pay 50 percent of his premiums in retirement -- unless he loses or decides not to run in November.

"Talk about politics at its dirtiest," Margie Swan of Cambria said said during the public comment period. "Mr. O'Connor should be grandfathered.

"It's politics at its worst," O'Connor said in an interview. "I have 22 years in, and (Updegrove) won't consider grandfathering, and now he's attacking my family and my retirement benefits, which is as low as you can go."

"I was misled," O'Connor told Updegrove during the debate. "There was deception. . . . I went by what you said, that it was only for first-time legislators running for office. That's why I voted for it in committee."

But in answering reporters' questions since the measure was introduced, Updegrove has been open that it would apply to O'Connor.

"I feel if you earn something, you should get it," Virtuoso said. "I think they're trying to force Mr. O'Connor out."

He challenged Updegrove to make the measure effective immediately, so it would apply to retiring Legislator Malcolm A. Needler, R-North Tonawanda, who is stepping down after 20 years. Updegrove refused.

Needler said he knew this was coming. "This resolution factored into my decision not to run again," he told the Democrats. "I agree with some of the points you guys are making." He voted no.

Updegrove said he doesn't believe the Democrats were confused in committee. He said he doesn't take county health insurance and added, "This is a touchy subject with our constituents."

He said the measure could affect nine legislators if they stay in office long enough.

O'Connor accused the Republicans of trying to use the health insurance issue as a distraction from the Industrial Development Agency board's move to give AES Corp., the county's largest property taxpayer, a tax break worth at least $43.4 million over 12 years.

e-mail: tprohaska@buffnews.com

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