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Warm and fuzzy rhetoric is wafting from Albany about a more open, democratic system of forging a state budget.

"This is going to be a totally open process," said Senate Majority Leader Joseph Bruno, echoing the sentiments of Assembly Speaker Sheldon Silver. "And it is truly historic."

In a Legislature where business has been done in closed-door, three-person talks among the two top legislative leaders and the governor, any move to involve the rank and file is historic. Now the public must demand that this change go deep enough to fulfill the promise of the rhetoric.

The Legislature has formed a 10-member conference committee, much like those used by Congress, to reconcile competing Senate and Assembly budgets. The governor's role comes later, with his power to approve or veto.

The concept is considerably better than what Albany has been working with. Congressional budgets aren't always perfect, but the public knows what's going on as they're battled out, and decisions are spread over a base of far more than three kingpins.

Albany's experiment with a conference committee working in open sessions is unquestionably more democratic than past Albany practice. The old way was to leave 209 state lawmakers twiddling their thumbs, waiting to discover what they would be directed to approve in a rush of votes after their leaders struck the final deal.

That way wasn't even efficient. No budget has passed by the April 1 deadline for 13 consecutive years.

It is already too late for realistic expectations that the new process will produce an on-time budget this year. The deadline is supposed to be April 1. The conference committee -- with five Republicans and five Democrats, five from the Senate and five from the Assembly -- has hardly had time to deliberate.

It is already agreed that the final budget compromise must fall between the $72.2 million Assembly budget and the $70.8 million Senate version. That would be close to the $71.6 billion total proposed by Gov. Pataki.

It is unfortunate that no one on this new 10-member statewide budget committee is from west of Syracuse. But if seniority rules, that distortion isn't surprising. It is another echo of the situation in Congress.

The big question is whether the compromises will emerge reasonably from the subcommittee process and the free voting by the 10 conferees. Or will the conference committee simply ratify back-room agreements of Pataki, Silver and Bruno, with everyone whipped into line by the iron rule of the Albany leaders? Silver and Bruno can always wield power with individual legislators by threatening their lulus -- lucrative stipends ranging from $6,500 to $30,000 awarded on top of the regular $57,500 legislative salary. The leaders also control committee assignments, the size of a member's staff and other perks.

But clearly the formation of the new committee has opened the door to a more open process, and it will be difficult indeed to close it again. The public has demanded this reform and is now well positioned to demand that it be more than cosmetic.

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