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ALBANY -- State Budget Director Patricia Woodworth started cutting state spending, jobs and egos last year.

She's heard every name in the book since.

But "environmentalist" is not one of them. She is better known for saving money than trees.

That is changing, however, with Ms. Woodworth's plan to finance hundreds of environmental projects using a $1.75 billion bond act.

The proposal, which voters will consider in a statewide referendum Nov. 5, has given her boss, Gov. Pataki, an opportunity to canvass the state with a tree-hugging proposal that only fiscal conservatives have attacked.

It has helped lift Pataki's poll numbers in recent months after the budget-cutting directed by Ms. Woodworth helped lower his public-approval ratings. Even state labor leaders, who have been Pataki's harshest critics, joined him last week in promoting the bond act.

"It's a good, positive issue," said a smiling Ms. Woodworth in her Capitol office. "Rare is the day that you'll see George Pataki, Al D'Amato, Dennis Vacco and Sam Hoyt all advocating the same thing," said Assemblyman Hoyt, D-Buffalo. "Is there politics in this (Pataki's bond act)? Yes. But George Pataki has shown some strength in protecting the environment in the past . . . (and) I think he deserves credit for this."

Like Hoyt, many people are surprised to learn that the bond act was Ms. Woodworth's idea. Some Pataki aides insist the credit belongs to many people, particularly Michael Finnegan, the governor's chief counsel and a well-known advocate of environmental causes.

While Finnegan, Pataki and others have wanted to meet a variety of environmental needs in the state, it was Ms. Woodworth who suggested a bond act to borrow the funds. It appears her primary interests were fiscal and political rather than environmental.

The bond act will allow Pataki to continue to cut -- or at least maintain -- state spending while still having enough money to tackle water pollution, industrial brownfields and air contamination, officials note.

"It clearly reflects what are the priorities of this state," Ms. Woodworth said of the projects that could benefit from the bond act. They range from water- and sewage-treatment plants to containment and removal of lead paint.

Unlike previous bond acts, this one does not have a list of projects already approved for funding. Both sides of the bond act argue that the lack of specificity could hurt the bond act's chances.

But most of the criticism has been aimed at the part Ms. Woodworth knows best -- the fiscal consequences of borrowing $1.75 billion.

But she said the projects eligible for funding are legitimate capital expenses similar to a mortgage on a house.

She also said the borrowing is proper because it is being done with voter approval. Most of New York's $30.6 billion overall debt occurred from back-door borrowing not approved by voters.

Critics say the state could spend the same amount of money on environmental projects each year without having to borrow funds and incur some $1.3 billion in interest costs. Chief among them is Assembly Majority Leader Michael Bragman, D-Syracuse, who says the state already carries too much debt.

"I can't imagine a budget director claiming credit for this particular bond act. It's a disaster for state finances," said Bragman's spokesman, Darren Dopp. New York's total debt payments will soon exceed 10 percent of the total budget. Debt managers, he said, recommend states carry only 8 percent of their total budgets as debt payments.

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