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JUST SAY NO" was never much of a drug policy. It's an even worse way for the State Legislature to try to deal with a budget crisis.

But "no" seems to be the lawmakers' primary response to any budget-cutting proposal that might offend a treasured constituency.

While Gov. Cuomo has put forth painful but necessary proposals for closing what was projected to be a $1 billion budget gap this fiscal year, the Legislature has scuttled the guts of the initiatives while publicly coming up with little in the way of responsible alternatives.

In fact, it is instructive to note that the only reason lawmakers might finally vote on a budget-cutting plan by tomorrow is because they don't want to face the prospect of dealing with the even bigger deficit expected to be revealed that same day.

When Comptroller Edward Regan releases figures on sales tax collections from November, they are expected to show the real deficit could be up to $1.5 billion. Lawmakers and Cuomo have vowed to close the gap without raising taxes, borrowing money or resorting to fiscal gimmicks.

But ignoring the new figures, even temporarily, is just one more gimmick for putting off tough decisions and buying time the state really doesn't have.

Regan also is expected to reveal that next year's projected deficit will be $3 billion to $4 billion, a billion dollars more than expected. This year's cuts will form the basis for dealing with next year's deficit, and the sooner -- and more realistically -- the Legislature comes to grips with the current problem, the better it will be able to deal with the upcoming one.

But what have Democratic Assembly Speaker Mel Miller and Republican Senate Majority Leader Ralph Marino and their foot soldiers done so far?

Rather than face up to the need to have all state workers take five unpaid days, as recommended by Cuomo to save $135 million, they appear ready to bow to union pressures and simply push one of this year's pay periods into some future year.

Rather than adopt Cuomo's plan to cut $200 million in school aid by sensibly taking more from wealthier districts and less from poor ones -- in line with a philosophy espoused by three separate commissions that examined school aid over the past two decades -- Senate Republicans have held fast to a pork-barrel approach that recognizes neither the state's fiscal problems nor its educational ones.

Legislators are balking at Cuomo's plan to eliminate the salaries paid members of 56 state boards and commissions, a move that would save $2.9 million. Cuomo has long advocated eliminating pay for serving on these part-time boards, but lawmakers have resisted giving up the patronage these paid appointments represent.

The governor has come up with two proposals to cut health care spending, still without any action from the Legislature. The legislators have put forth no noticeable alternative of their own.

Neither house has suggested furloughs or layoffs for the Legislature's own bloated staff, the largest for any state.

Beyond signaling an inability to manage that must frighten both Wall Street and Main Street, the delay stemming from the Legislature's inaction means that whatever steps are finally taken will have to be compressed into a shorter time frame. That just makes the impact of the final cuts more severe.

Cuomo has laid out a viable plan, painful though it may be. Rather than simply crying about the pain, the Legislature should either produce a better plan free of gimmicks, or make the tough decisions each member gets paid a base salary of $57,500 to make.

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