BY JOYCE MILES
Medina Journal-Register — When the three counties that make up the 62nd state senate district are in “last place” in certain economic indicators, is that an indictment of its long-serving senator?
Amy Hope Witryol, the Democratic candidate for senate who’s again taking on powerhouse Republican incumbent George D. Maziarz, thinks it is.
In housing values and percentage of value paid in property taxes, Niagara, Orleans and Monroe counties rank as the three worst, meaning highest taxed, counties in the United States.
People who buy homes here need more time to pay off their mortgages, and in retirement their “nest eggs” are less valuable.
Despite the Niagara Power Project operating right in the district’s front yard, residents pay some of the highest electric rates in the country.
The current unemployment rate is 8.5 percent in Niagara County and 9.9 percent in Orleans County; only three other counties in the state fare as bad or worse than Orleans.
Is Maziarz, the 18-year incumbent, responsible for these signs of the district’s ill health?
No, not directly, and not single-handedly, Witryol, a retired banking executive, conceded in a meeting of the candidates and the US&J Editorial Board this week.
But Maziarz does bear a share of blame, as a participant of New York’s “pay to play” political system, she argues. It’s pay-to-play that’s kept the 62nd down despite its economic assets — hydropower, fertile farmland, proximity to Lake Ontario, heritage holdings, et cetera — she said.
“When you’re on the bottom ... it says to me that we’ve got somebody in office who could be doing a better job on the economic front for us,” Witryol said. “It’s a failed record, in my view.”
Maziarz, who’s served in the senate since 1995, says his record shows anything but failure.
In the current legislative term, he’s No. 3 in senate majority leadership and takes some credit for helping pass major reform initiatives by Gov. Andrew Cuomo, including the
2 percent property tax cap and creation of a less lucrative Tier VI in the state/public employee pension system.
To Witryol’s complaint that the tax cap came without state mandate relief, he offered up newly enacted Medicaid spending reform — by way of a gradual state “takeover” of a share of local program costs — that will “save Niagara County $7 million over the next four years.”
“I have a reputation both in Albany and at home for fighting very hard for this district,” Maziarz said.
Ending pay-to-play representation, or “take the money out of politics,” is Witryol’s clarion call to voters in her second campaign against Maziarz.
In the endorsement interview, she questioned the merits of, or motives behind, a number of Maziarz-led initiatives that he believes are to his credit. Here are details on a few of their disagreements.
Who’s being served, special interests or people?
Maziarz’s public fight against a proposal to import electricity from Canada to New York City shows he has an “anti-competitive” mindset, which hurts the district and the state, Witryol charged.
After Cuomo voiced support for the so-called Champlain-Hudson Power Express earlier this year, Maziarz, the chairman of the senate energy and telecommunications committee, fired back with a proposed law to stop the privately funded transmission project dead in its tracks.
Upstate generators could meet downstate’s power demands no problem, if transmission infrastructure between regions was better, while investment in an “extension cord” from Quebec would create no jobs in New York and would ultimately endanger existing jobs in the industry, he said at the time.
Now it appears Cuomo’s “Energy Highway” initiative, to increase in-state power generating capacity through multiple sources and improve transmission infrastructure between upstate and downstate, through a mix of public and private investment, is in play.
Cuomo plugging the Canada extension cord was a “savvy” way of getting upstate private utilities to finally pony up for improvements — and Maziarz’s opposition showed his loyalty lies with producers who fear competition, Witryol said.
“Certainly, had I been in office 18 years, I would not have sat by with the extremely high electricity rates and obviously antiquated transmission system and not invested for two decades,” she said. Transmission upgrades could and should have been done sooner, but “he has the support of the stakeholders who benefit from less competition in the energy industry.”
Maziarz’s campaign finance reports show he’s taken in tens of thousands of dollars in donations from energy interests in recent election cycles.
Maziarz said he opposed the extension cord because of the threat it posed to “thousands” of upstate residents’ jobs, and because it made no sense to see foreign power imported when an
abundance exists right here.
There has been investment in the transmission system over the past 15 years, he added; deficiencies remain in “pocket areas” including the area south of Albany that leads downstate.
The state is ‘Recharged,’ but is the district?
Recharge NY legislation co-sponsored by Maziarz, and signed into law by Cuomo last year, is not benefiting the 62nd District to the extent that Maziarz claims, Witryol said.
The new-and-improved version of the state’s old Power For Jobs program funnels low-cost hydropower to businesses, and not-for-profit organizations, to retain or create new jobs. Allocations are for up to 7 years, instead of annual as in the old program.
Witryol shrugs off Recharge’s impact on the district, in noting that most of its nearly 700 recipients to date are outside it. And she is highly critical of a 480-kilowatt allocation to a Niagara County-based business, CWM Chemical Services, which takes in chemical hazardous wastes in Porter.
Since the landfill has finite permitted capacity, it’s not a candidate for what used to be called “expansion” power, and since CWM has “permanently committed” a number of jobs to the state, job retention is not an issue, Witryol said. Since the operation mostly takes in waste from out of state, New York has no compelling public interest in subsidizing it, she added.
Previously Witryol questioned Maziarz’s touting of that allocation, which she read as political rather than merit-based. It’s is another example of resources “squandered” by pay-to-play government, she suggested.
Maziarz did not address the CWM allocation, and instead ticked off a partial list of local Recharge recipients this year who maintained job numbers, and/or made plans to expand here in return: Candlelight Cabinetry, Delphi Automotive Systems, Eastern Niagara Hospital, Diversified Manufacturing, Yahoo! and Mayer Brothers Apple Products.
With its receipt of a power allocation, Mayer Brothers announced it would invest $7 million in expansion of its Barker and West Seneca facilities, Maziarz said, demonstrating Recharge’s power to attract private investment in the region.
“It’s a tool to spur economic development, job creation,” he said.
Where is the senator’s love for the ‘other’ half?
Orleans County is roughly half the 62nd District, geographically if not in population, and yet it’s been mostly neglected by Maziarz for years, Witryol charged.
She observed that Orleans was not included in cash settlement deals worked out between New York Power Authority and area municipalities when the authority sought another 50-year license to operate the Niagara Power Project, although the western end of the county is within the 30-mile radius that’s considered to be the plant’s host or affected community.
And while Maziarz touts the benefits to Orleans County from NPP excess power legislation he sponsored in the Senate — a bill that culminated in creation of the Western New York Power Proceeds Allocation Fund and Board this year — Witryol suggests Orleans-based businesses inevitably will get the short end of the stick in that deal too.
The WNY fund is fed from proceeds of NYPA’s sale of “excess” hydropower. NYPA allocates a block of low-cost power exclusively for businesses in the 30-mile radius around the Lewiston generating station. Recipients aren’t drawing it continuously, however, so the unused excess is sold on the open market. The WNY fund, into which NYPA reportedly might deposit as much as $15 million next year as a first payment, is for capital use by private businesses, including non-profit businesses, within the 30-mile radius. A five-member board, appointed by state leaders, will approve capital grant requests.
Maziarz identified the WNY fund legislation as among works in his ninth term that he’s most proud of. It counters Witryol’s charge that he doesn’t work hard or thoughtfully enough on issues of regional economy, he added.
“Power proceeds is a game changer for Western New York. It took a lot of hard work, and with the governor,” he said. “Excess power that’s sold from (NPP), that money used to go into the Power Authority’s general fund, not even the state’s general fund; and now that money is going to be kept in a fund here, to be used for economic development projects here. That is a game-changer.”
It won’t be so much for Orleans, when its “competition” for funding is Buffalo, northern Erie County suburbs and Niagara County, Witryol cracked.
Don’t be too sure about that, Maziarz cracked back.
“I plan on fighting very hard to make sure more than a fair share is allocated to projects in Orleans and Niagara counties,” he pledged.
Given the political animus between the competitors, it might be surprising to know there’s at least one issue on which they agree: The rightness of raising the minimum wage in New York state.
While Maziarz said he doubts a special legislative session will be called before the end of the year, recent reports out of Albany suggested one could be, to take up matters including raising the minimum wage from the current $7.25 per hour.
Witryol said she’s all for it, as a means of strengthening the economy.
“We’ve had a lot of stakeholders focused almost exclusively on cutting expenses and depressing wages,” she said. “We have a 70 percent consumer-based economy. If you oppose the minimum wage, you’re actually shrinking our economy.”
Maziarz said he supports raising the minimum wage as well, though he “would prefer” it be done in tandem with some form of small-business tax reduction or regulatory relief. If raising the minimum wage ended up a standalone proposal, with no conditions or companion measures attached, he’d vote “yes” anyway, he said.