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Ordinarily, New York lieutenant governors keep within the shadow of the governor, earnestly seconding the governor's initiatives and espousing only safe causes when espousing anything at all.

Then there's Betsy McCaughey Ross, lieutenant governor to George Pataki, who has long promoted her own programs in fields of her choice without much caring what the governor thinks. She has split so far from Pataki that she has jumped to the Democratic side of the fence and is trying to be nominated as Pataki's November opponent.

Ms. Ross was in town the other day with word that she is urging the governor to call a special session of the State Legislature to set in motion a statewide vote to permit casino gambling in New York State. Pataki is most unlikely to heed anything she proposes, but, this time, she is right, anyway.

The casino debate hereabouts is a hot one, fueled in large part by the presence of Casino Niagara in Niagara Falls, Ont. Casinos are not allowed under the New York State Constitution. The elaborate process for changing the constitution includes passage in a statewide referendum.

However, the constitution and the amendment process can be bypassed if a casino is established through a state agreement with an Indian nation such as the Senecas. In fact, some staunch local casino supporters seem ready to take the quick Indian route, constitution and voter opinion be damned. The City Hall development agency has gone so far as to hire a consultant.

Casinos can represent a substantial change in the nature of a community, enough to merit prior approval by the people. Bypassing a public vote with an Indian agreement would be unfair to the citizenry that would have to live with the consequences.

There is some urgency. Before there can be a referendum, the constitutional amendment must be approved by two successive state legislatures with an election intervening. Thus, an amendment passed by the Legislature this year could be acted on again in 1999 by the Legislature seated as a result of this fall's election, and put to the state's voters next November.

Presumably, an amendment would pinpoint possible casino locations and provide for localized public votes as the final step.

But if nothing happens this year, there is a two-year delay at best. Legislatures could pass an amendment in 1999 or 2000 and again in 2001 to set up the statewide vote in 2001. In the meantime, pressure for an Indian casino will almost certainly increase as gambling supporters become impatient. Public votes should be set in motion now so this issue is properly decided by the rules, rather than through circumvention of the rules.