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REMEMBER Harry and Louise? They were the characters in last year's insurance-industry television ads opposing President Clinton's health care initiative. Their chatty success was an early harbinger of a trend.

In 1995, the couple has been reborn in New York State as Harriet and Lou, courtesy of ads paid for by the Civil Service Employees Association, a state workers' union.

Harriet and Lou say they voted for Gov. Pataki last fall but now have deep regrets because of the cuts in his proposed budget. Particularly, it's the cuts in state services -- flowing, of course, from cuts in the state work force -- that frost Harriet and Lou.

Meanwhile, another set of TV ads -- paid for with heavy contributions of CHANGE-NY, a group formed by conservative wealthy New Yorkers -- exhorts viewers from the other side, telling them to insist that Pataki get all his budget wishes.

The governor's budget, with its substantial spending reductions, has led to expensive ad campaigns -- pro and con.

It's something new in New York. It's true that campaigns for November elections and the primaries leading up to them always include extensive advertising for candidates. But high-powered television and radio ads dealing with the state budget -- or other issues that are part of regular legislative business -- are different.

The best bet for a bemused public trying to sort the truth out of the welter of charges and countercharges is to be skeptical of all the ads. They are not, after all, meant to illuminate the issues. They are not designed to heighten public understanding of Pataki's budget, its rationale or its consequences. Their purpose is to sell a point of view that coincides with the interests of those who paid for them.

That's not surprising. Ads, after all, try to "sell" things. But this time it isn't soap or beer or even a candidate, but a public policy that benefits the advertiser. Kick a lot of tires before you buy anything.

The high stakes in this year's budget are partly what's behind the unusual ad campaigns. Pataki is proposing big spending cuts as well as multi-year tax cuts. On the one hand, jobs and services are on the line. On the other hand, big tax savings for business as well as individuals are at stake.

Opponents to the Pataki plans, especially public employee unions and the health-care industry, are spending more than $2 million to get their message on the airwaves.

On the pro-Pataki side, the Republican State Committee will weigh in with at least $500,000 to support the budget. Along with CHANGE-NY, the Business Council, Farm Bureau and Association of Counties are joining the fight.

Just as regular advertising campaigns sometimes try to target a narrow audience, some of the pro-budget ads target constituents of specific Assembly Democrats representing areas seen as friendly to Pataki. The public is urged to tell these Democrats to cross party lines and support Pataki.

What's a citizen to do? The same thing as when confronted with a blast of ads for cars or running shoes. Take it all with a grain of salt, and look for objective information to flesh out what's in the commercials.

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