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SAME CRISIS, SAME PROCESS: CAN'T ALBANY DO BETTER? OPEN DEBATE WOULD YIELD MORE RATIONAL BUDGET

F RESH OFF another overnight session that may or may not temporarily solve the state's budget problems, Gov. Cuomo and the Legislature have little reason to feel either proud or relieved.

They can't be proud because little evidence was presented that the solutions imposed this week were, in fact, the most efficient means of cutting costs.

They can't be relieved because the worst is yet to come. While $1 billion was supposed to be cut from this year's budget -- and more may yet have to be trimmed -- next year's deficit is projected to run in the $3 billion to $4 billion range.

That is all the more reason to reform the process by which Albany tries to balance its books. Unfortunately, a key private-sector commission looking for ways to cut costs and increase efficiency is not scheduled to come up with its first recommendations until after next year's budget is supposed to be in place. If it can offer some advice before then, it certainly should.

Where were the rank-and-file?

But the Legislature could take a big first step on its own by reforming the secretive process by which Albany decides the budget. That process has continued down the well-worn path of private negotiations between a few key leaders with the rest of the lawmakers paid good salaries to sit on the sidelines until being called in to acquiesce in what was worked out behind closed doors.

One result is a combination of serious measures and fiscal gimmicks -- such as delayed payrolls and inflated revenue estimates -- put together by a few key players.

The other result is that the public is provided little independent or open scrutiny of government's operation or a method of evaluating the administration's recommendations and possible alternatives.

Debate in full-fledged budget hearings where the pros and cons of Cuomo's proposals -- as well as those from groups like the New York State Business Council, which last year made several suggestions worthy of consideration -- can be argued could go a long way toward production of a more sound budget.

Not the least of its benefits would be the fact that it would expose the folly of steps taken -- or not taken -- before foolish measures are intricately wrapped in an overall deal that cannot then be pulled apart.

Deal left out better cuts

It will probably be some time before the full impact of the deal concluded Friday is calculated. There's no guarantee it will achieve even the $1 billion in savings that has been touted, let alone be enough to compensate for revenue shortfalls expected to be unveiled by Comptroller Edward Regan on Monday.

But even if the figures add up, there's no guarantee that the cuts made were the right ones. In fact, Sen. John Sheffer, R-Williamsville, who opposed the package, makes a strong argument that they weren't. He notes many of the laid-off workers are those who provide direct services, not members of Albany's bloated bureaucracy. He also notes much of that bureaucracy survives -- even Cuomo's proposal to abolish or consolidate state boards and commissions was ignored -- while many of the cuts will hit local schools and governments.

That is the type of debate that should take place in the open before a budget package is adopted, not after it has been rammed down members' throats by an autocratic leadership. The Legislature does not have to wait for any commission's findings before changing at least that aspect of the way it does business.

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