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State must reform its low-cost electricity programs

Falling water has powered industry and agriculture in Western New York since colonial times. And as long as the waters have swirled, a debate has swirled around how to make the best use of our hydropower.

This year, the New York State Legislature promised comprehensive reform of the state's low-cost power economic development programs. To begin those reforms, 11 New York state senators and Assembly members launched a statewide series of public hearings and round tables Wednesday in Niagara County, after a round table the day before in Buffalo. The events were an opportunity for the public, local business leaders and trade groups to present and defend Western New York's interests -- and they told us loudly and clearly that reform is necessary.

In the coming weeks we will be listening to companies that benefit from the low-cost power programs, and those that do not. We are specifically seeking ideas on how to best use our unique resource -- Niagara and St. Lawrence hydroelectricity -- to power our future.

I hope and believe the entire Western New York delegation will use this opportunity to work together in a bipartisan fashion to secure the maximum benefits for our region, rather than for purely partisan political purposes.

We have this great resource because of a powerful bipartisan vision, public support and the classic New York willingness to fight for dreams that would seem inconceivable anywhere else.

A century ago, Theodore Roosevelt, a Republican, warned against "waterpower barons" who wanted to lock up rights to St. Lawrence power. In the 1920s, Gov. Al Smith, a Democrat, called for creation of a state authority so this resource could benefit everyone.

The New York Power Authority was created in 1931 with the mandate to develop Niagara and St. Lawrence hydropower. Over the 50 years since the Niagara Power Project was licensed, state and federal legislation has authorized the authority to administer nine separate programs that use low-cost power for economic development. Some use hydropower from the authority, others use power purchased on the open market. Some programs are limited to specific regions; others operate statewide.

But these programs, some of which overlap and conflict, have never been given a rigorous, comprehensive review. It is imperative we reform the way these programs work so New Yorkers receive the maximum benefit from our water resources -- more jobs created, new careers in our communities and stronger businesses that stay in New York. These are, and must be, bipartisan goals.

We will use public input, analyze the Power Authority's performance and craft a new, long-term economic development program that will better use New York's unique power resource to attract vital new industries to New York, strengthen the foundations of our upstate communities and provide the higher-wage jobs that truly make this the Empire State.

William Stachowski, D-Buffalo, represents the 58th District in the State Senate.

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