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Gov. Pataki's budget proposal includes a solid plan to use part of the state's national tobacco lawsuit settlement to pay off some of this state's huge debt.

That angers those who want the entire settlement spent on anti-smoking programs, but it shows fiscal responsibility. Pataki's plan calls for using $1.5 billion -- 75 percent of the state's share of payments over the first five years -- to reduce the state debt.

That's a wise choice. New York has the largest per-capita debt of any state in the nation, at $36.2 billion. Paying off part of that now will not only reduce the total debt, but save on interest payments far into the future.

There is money left for health programs from the $25 billion settlement that will be split between the state and its counties. The settlement will be paid out over the next 25 years, with the biggest payments coming toward the end of that period.

That leaves 20 years of payments, growing to $1.2 billion per year, still unallocated. Even in the first five years, $500 million would go to health programs.

The $10 million now spent each year by the state on anti-smoking programs hasn't done enough, and a state Health Department advisory panel wants an annual commitment of $250 million to the effort. The budget proposal falls far short of that now, but still increases the current level of spending to $19 million.

A significant part of the tobacco money that is set aside for health programs should be spent on efforts to limit teen smoking. The settlement itself did not make the tobacco companies pay enough toward that end.

The argument that all of the tobacco money should be used to fight health problems is a powerful one, and will be voiced strongly by the health-care industry and the Democrats who control the Assembly. Senate-leading Republicans, meanwhile, would rather see the cash used to cut taxes -- a stance also taken by Erie County leaders for the county's share of the settlement.

At the state level, though, using most of that money over the next five years to attack the state debt makes sense. Health-care groups should accept the challenge to design lean but effective programs in the early years, and build on them as more funding becomes available. For now, however, Pataki has put forward a sound plan.

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