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ALL EYES FOCUSED ON THE ISSUES OF 2012; As this leap year dawns, Western New York is poised to watch a number of big stories unfold. Heated debates over politics, fracking and gambling are bound to hold our attention in the new year

The White House is up for grabs. Two Congressional seats will disappear from the state. The second Democrat to be elected Erie County Executive in 51 years takes office. And several hot-button issues ranging from the future of casino gambling to whether to allow hydraulic fracturing will be decided. No doubt that politics is poised to dominate the news in 2012.

But there also will be much more going on this leap year.

Catholics in the Buffalo area are wondering who will lead their diocese as they prepare to say goodbye to Bishop Edward U. Kmiec, who will more than likely retire by year's end.

Patients will have new options for medical care as new centers open and Millard Fillmore Hospital at Gates Circle closes.

There also will be much talk come spring about the anticipated trial of Dr. James G. Corasanti, accused of manslaughter in the hit-and-run death of an Amherst teenager as she was skateboarding home from work last summer.

Here are some of the stories to be looking out for this year:

*It's a big election year -- In the nation's capital, all eyes are already on November 2012. How the Nov. 6 election will turn out is anyone's guess. President Obama's approval ratings are weak -- but so are those of the two Republicans who seem to have the best chances of becoming his rival, Mitt Romney and Newt Gingrich.

The conventional wisdom says the outcome will depend on the economy: If it falters or holds steady, Obama is in trouble; if it picks up -- which seems to be happening -- he could coast to victory.

Of course, that's just one of many contests to be held. For the second time in two years, Sen. Kirsten E. Gillibrand, D-N.Y., will run for re-election -- this time for a full six-year term.

And Western New York's House members will compete in newly drawn districts, as reapportionment shrinks the state's share of House members from 31 to 29, and there's a strong likelihood that one of those seats will be taken from our region.

*Redistricting holds the key to local races -- Thanks to the once-a-decade census, all 212 state legislative lines will have to be redrawn. And yes, the state's population decline is to blame.

The stakes are high. Example: How the lines are drawn will shape who wins control of the State Senate in the November elections. There's particular interest over what will happen to the seat of Sen. Mark Grisanti, a Republican in a district that is currently overwhelmingly Democratic.

The fights over redistricting, both legal and political, were already well under way in 2011, but decisions by state lawmakers, who draw the lines, and Gov. Andrew M. Cuomo, who must approve them, are due soon. Then will come court battles and U.S. Justice Department reviews.

*On the waterfront -- After a successful summer that brought thousands to the Commercial Slip, developers are hoping to build momentum.

Work to re-create portions of the historic Erie Canal on the city's waterfront will begin this month at the former Memorial Auditorium site.

As part of the long-planned Canalside project, three bridges, 18-inch-deep reflecting pools and two levels of pedestrian access are coming to the Aud site.

The southern half of the four-acre site will see the pedestrian bridges and reflecting pools that will be used for ice skating in the winter.

There are also plans in the works for a spring opening for the Liberty Hound restaurant in the Buffalo & Erie County Naval and Military Park, a city-owned site.

*To frack or not to frack -- Hydraulic fracturing, the controversial process by which natural gas is extracted from under ground, faces decision time this year in New York. While Cuomo is leaning toward embracing the drilling as a jobs creator, at least in some areas, lawmakers want to check in, and the courts will likely not be far behind.

*High stakes gambling on the table -- In a state with Indian casinos, a brisk lottery business and slotlike devices at racetrack gambling halls, the governor and legislative leaders want more.

They want a constitutional amendment to permit full-blown, Las Vegas-style casinos on non-Indian lands.

That will place them at odds with the Senecas, who hold a compact with the state that is supposed to guarantee them a noncompetitive area without other casinos operating. Where, how many and what will be the state's dollar take are just some of the issues coming up this year.

*Bishop Kmiec likely to retire -- When Kmiec turned 75 last year, he submitted a letter of resignation to the pope as required by Catholic canon law.

That set in motion the secretive Vatican process of finding a successor. When the pope names a new bishop for Buffalo, Kmiec will become "administrator" of the diocese, with reduced responsibilities, until his successor is installed. The whole process is expected to take several months, and possibly longer than a year.

*The trial of the year -- The trial of Corasanti, a Getzville doctor, in the fatal hit-and-run death of Amherst teenager Alexandria "Alix" Rice is scheduled for April. Rice was riding her skateboard home at about 11:20 p.m. on July 8, 2011, on Heim Road when Amherst police say Corasanti struck her with his car and then drove off without stopping. The doctor turned himself in an hour and a half later.

An Erie County grand jury in September indicted Corasanti, 56, on charges of second-degree vehicular manslaughter, second-degree manslaughter, leaving the scene of an incident without reporting resulting in death, and two counts of tampering with physical evidence.

Jury selection is scheduled to begin April 20, and the trial would begin April 23.

*Intrigue at City Hall -- There's great intrigue in and around City Hall as a federal investigation continues into allegations of corruption.

In exchange for cooperating with investigators, former planning czar Timothy Wanamaker pleaded guilty last year to racking up $30,000 in personal expenses on a city credit card.

Many are wondering what dirt he's got to spill.

*Last runs on some bus routes -- The Niagara Frontier Transportation Authority plans to chop about 22 percent of its bus route miles in the spring to counter a $14.7 million deficit. Transit officials acknowledge that drastic restructuring to "right size" the system will cause hardships for many commuters relying on Metro for work, but they also see no other alternative. The cuts target bus lines on the outer reaches of Erie and Niagara counties that carry only a handful of passengers daily, as well as some serving the inner core.

The agency is also continuing to try to sell its waterfront property, which includes the Small Boat Harbor and the Port Terminal Complex.

*Building a medical campus -- Hospital construction. Closure of Millard Fillmore Hospital. Consolidation of health services on the Buffalo Niagara Medical Campus with the opening of the Gates Vascular Institute. Expect these three issues to be among the major health stories for 2012 in Buffalo.

The Gates Vascular Institute is a 10-story, $291 million facility abutting Buffalo General Hospital -- a collaboration between Kaleida Health and the University at Buffalo.

The complete opening of the Kaleida Health portion of the institute will coincide with the movement of heart and neurosurgery services from Millard Fillmore to the new building. The Gates Circle hospital will be closed. A plan for reuse has not yet been determined.

At Erie County Medical Center, work is continuing on a $150 million expansion, which includes a regional kidney transplant and dialysis center that opened in December. The facility combines similar programs at ECMC and Kaleida Health, and is considered the first major clinical combination since the two health systems agreed to collaborate in 2008.

*Poloncarz faces challenges -- Former County Comptroller Mark Poloncarz will be sworn in as the new County Executive today. The Democrat who swept to victory in a surprisingly decisive election will have to confront two major challenges: the county's lease agreement for Ralph Wilson Stadium, which expires in 2013, and the negotiation of new contracts with seven unions.

As Poloncarz takes office, the Legislature will reduce its size from 15 members to 11 under a downsizing plan approved by voters in 2010. Democrats, who will maintain a slim majority in the Legislature, also will appoint a new county comptroller to fill the seat vacated by Poloncarz.

*Other local political news -- Keep an eye out for these other political stories:

Erie County District Attorney Frank A. Sedita III will be up for re-election.

South Council member Michael P. Kearns has expressed interest in possibly running for the Assembly seat vacated by Mark J.F. Schroeder, who left to become city comptroller.

Other possible contenders for the seat include Christopher Fahey, an aide to Rep. Brian Higgins, and former Lackawanna Mayor Norman Polanski.

No date has been set for a special election for that seat, though the state's presidential primary in April is one possibility. If Kearns runs for the post, and wins, the Council has the power to name a replacement to fill the vacancy.

The fate of County Democratic Chairman Leonard R. Lenihan. Lenihan had been urged by state Democratic leaders to step aside and had himself announced his retirement last summer, but did an about face and scored two major coups in the unexpected victories of Kathy Hochul to Chris Lee's vacated seat in Congress and Poloncarz's win over Chris Collins. Now questions remain about what course of action he'll take when his term expires in September.

email: mbecker@buffnews.com