Although Gov. Eliot Spitzer told the state Legislature in his State of the State address last week that passing “a bill to fast-track the building of power plants” was a priority of his administration in 2008, neither the Assembly or the Senate has anyone in a position to negotiate such legislation.
The chairman of the Senate energy committee departed last week, and the Assembly hasn’t had an energy chairman in several months.
Seven months ago, Paul Tonko, an Amsterdam Democrat then serving in the Assembly, was appointed president and CEO of the New York State Energy Research and Development Authority, leaving his position as Assembly Energy Committee chairman, a post he had held for 15 years. Since then, Assembly Speaker Sheldon Silver, D-Manhattan, has not named a replacement, making the Energy Committee the only standing Assembly committee without a chairman.
Silver has the sole power to name committee chairmen in the Assembly, just as Senate Majority Leader Joseph Bruno, R-Brunswick, has that power in the state Senate. Last month, Sen. James Wright, R-Watertown, chairman of the Senate Energy and Telecommunications Committee, announced that he would resign his Senate seat to take a job with Fleishman-Hillard Government Relations. According to state Senate officials, he officially departed Jan. 7.
“It’s a unique situation that we have no chairman whatsoever on any energy committee, but seven months is a lot longer than a few weeks for the Senate,” said Assembly Minority Leader Jim Tedisco, R-Schenectady. “We’ve got some of the highest energy and gasoline prices in the Northeast and in the nation, and I don’t think there is any excuse whatsoever why the speaker and the majority have allowed the chairmanship of this committee to remain vacant for [seven] months. If this was a business and they hadn’t appointed a CEO … in seven months, the stockholders would be going wild.”
According to the U.S. Energy Information Administration, New York state had the fourth most expensive electricity in the United States in 2007, at an average of 14.54 cents per kilowatt hour.
Silver spokeswoman Sisa Moyo said the Assembly has not been in session until this week and no committees met while the Legislature was out of session. She said if a vote needed to be conducted by the Energy Committee, the committee could meet only if Silver allowed them to and named a temporary chairperson. She said Silver is “making his decision” but would not specify a timeframe.
Assembly Majority Leader Ron Canestrari, D-Cohoes, said Silver could name a temporary chairperson if one was needed. He said there is a lot of interest in the position among Assembly Democrats and Silver may choose someone who is already a committee chairperson, necessitating another appointment to replace that person. He said he thinks the appointment will come soon.
Assemblyman Tom O’Mara, R-Horseheads, the ranking minority member of the Energy Committee, said passage of the fast-track power plant siting law, dubbed Article 10, was stymied in 2007 in part because of Tonko’s role as chairman and his opposition to clean coal and nuclear power being included as options for fast-track power plant siting authority.
“One of the major impediments to those discussions was the portfolio of energy supplies we were going to allow Article 10 applicants to utilize,” O’Mara said. “I think we need to have a broad-based portfolio or else we become beholden to one particular commodity.”
Heather Briccetti, the vice president for governmental affairs for the Business Council of New York, a research and lobbying organization, said passing a fast-track power plant law is vital to increasing the supply and lowering the cost of energy in New York state.
“This is a front-and-center issue in New York. It’s very atypical for committees to be left without a chair,” she said. “We just want to be sure whoever the chair is that they are open-minded with respect to energy diversity, nuclear energy, clean coal, because obviously New York has huge needs.”
Tonko said that when he was in the Assembly, he favored reauthorizing the power plant siting law, but the version he last worked on was “silent on the fuels that fed the facilities.” He said clean energy outcomes should be the priority.
“Just about all of the applications that have been received [by the state for fast-track authorization] have been for natural gas [plants] and probably will continue to be so,” he said.
Energy committee member Assemblyman Sam Hoyt, D-Buffalo, said there’s been gridlock on the issue of energy for too long and he hopes Spitzer can help overcome that. He said including clean coal technology in a new fast-track power plant law is acceptable to him, although he’s unenthusiastic about nuclear energy. He said “environmental justice” concerns raised primarily in the New York City region — regarding siting power plants in densely populated urban and/or poor areas — have been a factor in discussions to renew the law.
“All sides need to be willing to compromise, and I think our house needs to be willing to compromise as well,” Hoyt said.
Hoyt’s father, William Hoyt, was the Energy Committee chairman before Tonko and died on the Assembly floor while still serving that role. Hoyt said he doubts he’ll be chosen to fill the position.
“It doesn’t appear that I will be chair. Nobody seems to know [who it will be]. Only the speaker knows,” he said.
There also is no immediate replacement for Wright on deck in the Senate.
Bruno spokesman Mark Hanson said a successor will be chosen “at an appropriate time.”
Sen. Hugh T. Farley, R-Niskayuna, said he suspects the next Senate energy chairman will be from upstate and have some seniority.
“There is a problem in the Assembly because they have been without a chairman for quite some time, but in my opinion there is not a void really [in the Senate] because the Senate staff is still in place for the energy committee,” Farley said. “The Senate Finance Committee and the major Assembly committees are monitoring all of these energy situations, and they’ll be ready to roll.”