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ONE IN A ROW
ALBANY FINALLY MEETS A BUDGET DEADLINE BUT THERE'S STILL WORK TO BE DONE

It's a budget! Purists might demur, arguing that because Gov. George Pataki has not yet signed off on the plan, a state budget is not yet done. But let us not quibble. For the first time in 21 years, the New York State Legislature, the most dysfunctional such body in the United States, has managed to meet its basic obligation by the time it was supposed to.

How well legislators did that job is open to debate, but give them this: They appear to have taken their fundamental responsibility more or less seriously, completing work on the 2005-2006 budget before the previous one expired. And they hardly crowded their deadline at all, approving the document with almost half a day to spare. Who says the Lord has stopped working miracles?

Still, at risk of putting a damper on the celebrations, we like Sen. Michael Balboni's take on the day's accomplishment. "This is not a crowning achievement," the Long Island Republican said on the Senate floor. "This is our job."

So it is, and while it is encouraging that legislators finally did that job, it's a little like an employer being thankful that a routinely tardy department head managed to show up on time one day. They shouldn't expect a parade. What they should expect is continued pressure. Voters have learned they have a voice. Their anger was heard and it galvanized lawmakers into competence.

What is more, given the past 20 years of willful insubordination, no one should believe that a single instance of timeliness demonstrates a suddenly healthy system. The process of crafting a state budget still depends too much on personality -- the ability of the governor and two legislative leaders to get along -- and there are not enough significant penalties for failure.

This is no time to back off on demands for budget reforms. A good one would be to move the start of the budget year to July 1, the beginning of the year's third quarter and the date that all but a handful of states use.

As to the budget, itself, it appears to be a mixed bag, with lawmakers making some efforts toward resolving long-standing problems, but never truly coming to grips with any of them. Spending grows faster than inflation, the state's out-of-control debt rises another $6.9 billion and the education funding formula remains convoluted.

About $2.9 billion of the proposed new debt at least comes through the front door, via a proposed transportation bond issue that must be approved by voters. The proceeds would be evenly split between New York City and the rest of the state. The rest looks like traditional back-door borrowing, accomplished through the state's public authorities, a strategy that evades the need for voter approval.

Lawmakers have agreed to provide Medicaid relief to the state's overburdened counties, an important action, but have done little to restrain the costs of the program itself. New York's Medicaid program remains far costlier than the national average, and ultimately unsustainable.

And while they did not fix the state's so-called formula for distributing education aid, or come to grips with a state court order on school funding, they did significantly raise this year's proposed figure, to the relief of the state's poor districts -- Buffalo, in particular.

In truth, though, while the Legislature has approved a budget, the budget is not yet done. More negotiations are expected between lawmakers and Pataki, meaning that the package could become better or worse. Anyone who pays for or depends upon Medicaid -- that is to say, all New Yorkers -- still have to hope lawmakers will act to reduce the costs of a program that threatens to strangle the state's economy.