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ALBRIGHT-KNOX, MARTIN HOUSE MERIT FEDERAL FUNDS

Everybody wants to curb federal spending. But the line-item veto law that lets a president cancel specific projects in large spending bills was passed with the idea that the chief executive would make informed decisions and understand all of the ramifications before deciding what is "pork" and what is a useful expenditure.

The White House already demonstrated its lack of understanding of New York when vetoing a complicated Medicaid funding scheme without having anything in place to make up for the inequities that the veto would cause.

The Clinton administration shouldn't be similarly myopic when it comes to a $2 million appropriation for the Albright-Knox Art Gallery. If it does the kind of homework it should this time, the funding should survive despite the anxiety caused by the administration's scrutiny of the project.

A $500,000 allocation to help restore the irreplaceable Darwin Martin House also should survive. That money is included in a separate bill, about which the White House also has expressed concern. But both projects are integral to Western New York's effort to revitalize itself by building on the few concrete assets it has.

The $2 million for the Albright-Knox -- approved by Congress as part of a larger bill funding several agencies -- is critical to the gallery's future. It would pay for a new air-handling system, which is the key component in a $6.5 million renovation that will be kicked off in January.

The museum's 35-year-old temperature and humidity control systems are outdated. They meet neither environmental rules nor modern museum standards for climate control.

Unless the system is upgraded, this world-class museum won't be able to borrow exhibits because other curators aren't going to risk having their artworks damaged by an Albright-Knox that isn't climatically up to snuff.

The arts here regularly draw more than all of the sports teams combined. But if the Albright-Knox is neglected, the gallery's potential to draw visitors and contribute to the region's economic vitality will be severely hampered.

The same holds true for the Darwin Martin House, one of the nation's treasures designed by famed architect Frank Lloyd Wright. It already regularly draws busloads of tourists even while closed during renovation. Imagine what it will do for this hard-pressed region once it's reopened.

The economic stakes for Buffalo as well as the intrinsic value of both of these institutions justify these appropriations. The Martin House money should raise no questions at all since it's included in an Interior Department bill that typically funds work on sites of national significance. The only question there is whether Clinton vetoes the entire bill because of a dispute with Republicans over an unrelated provision. He should find a way not to.

Construction money for the Albright-Knox is contained in a Housing and Urban Development bill. As Sen. Alfonse D'Amato, R-N.Y., notes, that's appropriate because the gallery is one key to Buffalo's redevelopment.

A spokesman for D'Amato, who helped insure the projects got funded, points out that no members of Congress objected to the Albright-Knox funding when the overall HUD bill was discussed in committees and passed by the full Senate and by a conference committee of both houses.

That should speak loudly to the White House, which should avoid a cheap publicity stunt and save the line-item veto for the types of unjustifiable projects for which it was intended. Neither the Martin House nor the Albright-Knox falls into that category.

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