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Focus on reforms Albany needs to deal with real issues, not with clash of personalities and wills

Helicopters? New York is the country's most punitively taxed state, home to its most dysfunctional Legislature, and we're supposed to focus on a spat about the helicoptering habits of the leader of the Senate? It's a distraction.

The issue in Albany is not who flew when for what reason, or whether the governor went too far in investigating it. As meaty as that story may be, the dispute between Senate Majority Leader Joseph L. Bruno and Gov. Eliot L. Spitzer is a diversion from the crucial issue, which is how to reform a state government that is turning upstate into an economic wasteland.

However much Bruno smears the governor, the sides in that battle are clear. Spitzer has publicly committed to reforming state government, while Bruno and Assembly Speaker Sheldon Silver want nothing more than to protect a rapacious status quo, one that enriches favored friends while draining the life from upstate.

Remember, it was Silver who broke his promise on how to appoint a new state comptroller, thereby giving the speaker a potential ally in an influential state office. Meanwhile, Bruno, leader of the supposedly more conservative Republican party, was happily pumping even more taxpayer dollars into Spitzer's already bloated budget.

Bruno also says that Spitzer's reform plans, especially those on campaign finance, are really thinly disguised efforts to destroy the Republican Party in New York. If that is true, it is also redundant, since the high-spending Republican Party is already in full self-destruct mode.

What is more, both legislative leaders wield iron control over their chambers, keeping timid members in line with their power of the purse. Indeed, their rule is so pervasive that we wonder what Sen. Mary Lou Rath could have been thinking when she referred to Spitzer as "dictatorial." She and the other followers in the Legislature mainly do what they're told, collect their pay and head to the next fund-raiser.

Meanwhile, upstate withers.

Some undeniably good things came out of this session of the Legislature, to be sure. They include a fairer education funding formula and a workers compensation reform that, it can be hoped, will cut premium rates by 20.5 percent.

Both are important changes, and while the Legislature can claim a share of the credit for each, no one should doubt Spitzer's role. The issues were his. He initiated them and pushed for their adoption. The Legislature would never have done either on its own because each requires vision and courage, qualities too rarely in evidence in the legislative branch.

Spitzer has an abrasive side, it's true, and he is familiar with the picturesque uses of the present participle. His style has already led him into some difficulties, and we hope he learns as he leads. But the bottom line is that he understands the problems of Albany and, what is more, he understands that he can't fix this state by coddling the people who wrecked it.

Reformers can go too far, too fast, and they can squander their capital by appearing -- or being -- hypocritical. For the moment, though, what New Yorkers need to worry about are the defenders of the status quo in the Legislature.

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