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Legislators postpone vote on proposed 2 a.m. bar closing

Erie County lawmakers – criticized by some who felt they were rushing to kill the idea of an earlier bar-closing time without public input – reconsidered Thursday.

Lawmakers voted 7-4 against bringing the bar-closing measure to the floor for a deciding vote. Instead, they want to hold a public information session next week so that all sides can be heard on the issue.

“I appreciate the fact that cooler heads have prevailed,” said Democratic Minority Leader Thomas Loughran.

Legislator Ted Morton, R-Cheektowaga, sponsored the measure to move up the bar-closing time from 4 a.m. to 2 a.m. But he said this week that he has been unable to persuade most of his fellow legislators to support the bill.

Morton said he hopes an informational session will be held at next Thursday’s Finance Committee meeting.

Majority Leader Joseph Lorigo, C-West Seneca, would not commit to a date for the public session. He said anyone who comes to speak would only do so at his invitation as committee chairman. He lambasted his fellow legislators and accused them of dragging out the matter. Most legislators, he said, oppose Morton’s measure.

“Everybody knows the resolution is going to fail,” Lorigo said.

Legislature Chairman John Mills, R-Orchard Park, decided to support the resolution after talking with law enforcement officials. But he agreed the measure stands a slim chance of approval, even if it picks up a few supporters after the public information session.

County Clerk Christopher Jacobs had released a survey showing 69 percent of Erie County residents support the idea. But as all sides noted, the Legislature has not had a single public conversation about it since then.

The decision to hold off on a vote came after the Legislature’s morning caucus, when two representatives from the restaurant, bar and nightlife industry spoke out against the 2 a.m. rollback. This irritated other legislators who questioned the fairness of being addressed by only two people on the same side of the issue, when many other constituents have asked for a chance to speak.

Ultimately, Republican legislators Morton, Mills and Kevin Hardwick joined with Democratic legislators Loughran, Peter J. Savage III, Barbara Miller-Williams and Betty Jean Grant in favor of further discussion.

Democratic Legislator Patrick Burke joined majority coalition members Lorigo, Lynne Dixon and Edward A. Rath III in attempting to have the proposal defeated immediately.

Several legislators who voted to pursue further public discussion stressed that they were not seeking a delay because they support the 2 a.m. bar closing time, but because they promised their constituents an opportunity to voice their opinions.

“Let’s give the residents of this community an opportunity to be heard,” Savage said. “I’m not going to apologize for standing up for the public that wants to be heard on an issue that is very important to a number of people, whether you’re for or against it. I’ve heard from both. I think it’s a very difficult issue.”

Jacobs, who first raised the issue last summer, said the poll he helped commission clearly shows that if the 2 a.m. bar closing proposal were to go to a public referendum, it would clearly pass. The measure also is supported by members of law enforcement.

Opponents, however, said there’s little data to show that rolling back bar closing times would reduce drinking-and-driving incidents, but would instead be an unnecessary burden on business owners.

Several also dismissed the survey as biased, despite assertions by pollster Barry Zeplowitz that the poll used standard, statistically sound techniques.

Some legislators requested that Zeplowitz be invited to address the Legislature, but Lorigo said he had no plans to invite him.