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Now that Phase I of the Erie County budget process is over and a new fiscal year opens today, it's worth pondering the long range implications of Democratic legislators' decision to toss County Executive Gorski overboard.

The attempt to rig the budget with a tax cut to prop up their own re-election efforts this year is so transparent that it doesn't need much re-examination as attention now turns to renewing the sales tax.

But what's less apparent is the long-term impact of the Democratic majority's actions on Gorski and on the party's ability to hold on to that office.

In opting to take Gorski to court over the tax rate, Legislature Democrats forced the county executive into an untenable position.

The feud recalls nothing so much as Will Rogers' damning quote about belonging to no organized political party. Instead, he said, he was a Democrat. He must have had the Erie County party in mind.

One of Gorski's biggest assets always has been financial credibility. It was a factor in ousting the Republican administration that had lost voter trust and in easily beating back the challenge of Mayor Griffin after the county executive's first term.

That armor plating of credibility has been chinked with the deal to siphon off $800,000 in 1992 money the administration first claimed it didn't think should be used. The compromise leaves Republicans with the perfect opportunity to push one of two claims: Either the money wasn't needed in 1992 and Gorski was just padding the books (an annual charge by the party out of power); or the money was needed and Gorski risked the county's fiscal health by diverting it to placate fellow Democrats.

Either way, the deal doesn't make good copy for a re-election flyer when Gorski's current term ends.

Gorski offered the deal to his Democratic comrades only after they first doubled the ante by trying to shift $1.6 million in unspent money in the 1992 budget. Gorski's budget officials -- who'd win any bean-counting contest with the Legislature -- had contended the money should remain in the budget to cover end-of-the-year expenses.

Lawmakers -- willing to lower the 1993 tax rate now, while the spotlight is on, and worry about possible revenue shortfalls later -- instead wanted to use the 1992 money to prepay some 1993 expenses. That would allow them to cut the 1993 tax levy.

It was a foolish and unnecessary gamble, since any money left over once the 1992 books have been audited gets returned to taxpayers in the 1994 budget. But when Gorski objected, they went to court. In the meantime, the county executive offered to split the difference, agreeing to the compromise that would shift $800,000 of the disputed $1.6 million.

Gorski explained his offer by pointing to the fiscal damage that could have been done had the courts agreed that the Legislature had the power to shift the entire amount.

But the confidence with which the administration expressed its position beforehand and the quick way in which the court dismissed the lawsuit make it likely party unity and avoiding an embarrassing legal fight was as much a motivation as anything.

The myopic Democrats filed suit anyway. Now Gorski not only has the potential $800,000 problem -- he also has the political problems that will come with it.

While legislators typically try to make budget cuts to lower taxes, rarely do they go so far as to drag their own county executive into court, thereby painting a bulls-eye on his back for the opposition.

In the context of budgets approaching $1 billion, $800,000 may not seem like a lot of money. But it provides a foot in the public-relations door for Republicans eager to recapture the county executive's seat, an opening they wouldn't have had without the help of Gorski's fellow Democrats.

ROD WATSON is an editorial writer for The News.

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