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STILL ROOM FOR REFORM
LEGISLATURE HAS DONE SOME GOOD WORK, BUT THERE STILL IS A LOT MORE TO DO

Clearing one hurdle doesn't win the race. With just weeks left in the current legislative session, state lawmakers have some distance to cover if they truly want to make this year one of true reform.

An on-time budget may have been earthshaking by state government standards over the past 20 years, but it wasn't much of a reform. Albany is supposed to pass a budget by April 1. As much as we applaud the effort it took to break the mold, getting the budget completed on time still amounts just to getting an assigned job done. The lawmakers can more accurately claim credit for reform from their agreement to cap the local share of Medicaid expenses. There still are major challenges ahead in limiting program spending within Medicaid, but the cap was a vital first step.

There is a substantial list of reforms still on the table. Perhaps the highest priority for this region is making sure local industries retain the right to purchase cheap hydroelectric power. Loss of that power would be devastating for this area. In a reversal from last year, the State Senate has passed the bill while it still awaits action in the Assembly.

Beyond local economic interests, though, there are governmental reforms that need quick attention. Many of them will be highlighted in a public "lobby day" rally to be held Tuesday in Albany by the New York Public Interest Research Group.

Several are within reach for this session. A proposed procurement reform strengthens lobbying laws by stipulating that anyone seeking a state contract can contact only one designated procurement officer, and not seek to lobby lawmakers, the governor or other officials to use clout in sealing the deal.

Another reform would end a loophole that lets state officials escape sanctions for ethics violations simply by leaving office, and would instead keep them on the hook for a year. And a freedom of information law reform would impose a deadline for state responses to information requests, a needed change despite the governor's valid concern that it doesn't also cover the legislative branch.

The state also stands to lose a couple of million dollars in federal aid for new voting machines it will have to buy eventually anyway to meet Help America Vote Act standards. What's needed to protect that money is a package of election reforms, many of which already have been agreed upon.

One proposed "reform" is anything but. The Senate is considering a bill -- the Assembly has already passed it -- which would establish an Independent Budget Office that could bring certainty to revenue and expense numbers now subject to political bickering that often delays the budget process.

However, the office's budget projections are only advisory. Even worse, the bill would enhance the Legislature's power by giving it the authority to add its own spending to a contingency budget -- a sure-fire way to encourage missed budget deadlines and further bloat state spending.

If the bill passes, the so-called reform goes on the ballot as a constitutional amendment. For the sake of New Yorkers worried about unchecked state spending, this misguided plan should not make it that far.

There is one needed reform not likely to be passed between now and the session's end in June. Nevertheless, citizens should continue to pressure their representatives to get behind it. New York needs to take the way political districts are drawn out of the hands of parties -- which are interested only in protecting incumbents -- and assign it to a nonpartisan, independent panel. A similar plan is now being pushed by Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger in California.

If races were truly competitive, perhaps the Legislature would not be the place where fresh ideas go to die.