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ALBANY'S MONEY GRAB . . .

The State Assembly set a new standard for deceit Wednesday, approving in the middle of the night a massive, $9.3 billion health-care bill conceived in secrecy and dedicated to the proposition that there is no money Albany cannot seize.

Unless members of the Senate come under intense public pressure, its members are likely to do the same this week. They must not do that. The Senate needs to reject this bill, extend the existing act and subject this far-reaching measure to the kind of public scrutiny that legislatures are supposed to provide. It needs to do its job.

The Health Care Reform Act of 2000 could have been a magnificent bill, securing the financial health of the state's struggling hospitals and providing affordable health coverage to about a million of the state's uninsured residents. That it accomplishes those goals and still qualifies as an unmitigated disaster is a measure not of its laudable intentions, but of the presumptuous and surreptitious way that state leaders, Republican and Democrat alike, conspired to achieve their goals.

More unfunded mandates

Without consultation or notice, either before or after they delivered this new law, the four negotiators -- Albany's three wise men and a union interloper -- decided to commit not just the state's share of money from the tobacco settlement, but the counties' portion, too. They did so without giving local officials or taxpayers a chance to have a say in this money grab.

That's a $350 million swindle, according to the New York State Association of Counties, one that will cost Erie County $9.3 million over the 3 1/2 -year life of the legislation. Niagara will fork over $1.7 million.

Our state government is famous for jamming unfunded mandates down the throats of the counties, but this one is breathtaking in its audacity. It not only continues the state's economically destructive pattern of jacking up local government expenses, but it grabs for a pot of new money for which counties were already making plans.

It may be that the citizens of this state would approve of spending the tobacco money to provide health insurance for the uninsured. That is a noble goal. But the state, as it does so often, has dictated this spending to the counties, giving them no say in the matter. They only have to find the money and spend it as Albany tells them. And, of course, the only place to find that much money is from their share of the tobacco settlement.

One of the major reasons that employers move out of state or refuse to come here is the oppressive nature of unfunded mandates and the taxes that go along with them. That the governor and our local assemblymen, who have repeatedly promised to improve the Western New York business climate, are trying to impose another huge unfunded mandate is a breach of faith stunning in its contempt for area voters.

A closed-door process

Even if its ends were justified, the process that produced this abomination was corrupt.

The legislation preserves funding for the state's teaching hospitals, increases support for indigent care by hospitals and creates four new insurance initiatives, including Family Health Plus, designed to provide free or low-cost coverage to 1 million of the state's uninsured.

But the negotiations were secret. There were no hearings, no open debates, no public challenge to the judgment of these four men, Gov. George Pataki, Senate Majority Leader Joseph Bruno, Assembly Speaker Sheldon Silver and health-industry union leader Dennis Rivera. They met behind closed doors, handed down their decision and ordered rank-and-file legislators to apply their rubber stamp. Those in the Assembly complied, approving the bill in a 98-37 vote conducted at 3 a.m. Wednesday.

The bill was being drafted even as members made their way from their districts to the Capitol. They could not have known what time bombs may have been hidden in it, because they didn't have time to read it and they had been locked out of the negotiations. Until he was told by a newspaper editor, one Erie County assemblyman did not even know the bill had fundamentally changed from what he understood.

Taking local money

But that change altered the legislation from just another Albany production -- though an expensive one -- to an intolerable and indefensible grab for local money. Defenders say only the result matters. The new law protects hospitals and addresses the pressing problem of the uninsured, they say, and that is enough.

It's not. Not when the state is raiding county coffers of hundreds of millions of dollars. And what's more, process matters. In courtrooms, it diminishes the possibility of convicting an innocent man. In legislation, it shines a light on the kind of details Pataki and Co. strove so hard to conceal: What are the impacts? Who is helped? Who will pay? It makes public business public.

The Health Care Reform Act of 1996 expires at the end of this year, and it is crucial legislation. The Senate cannot simply ignore the issues, but it can vote to extend that law and force the Assembly to do the same so this measure can be debated and analyzed with the care it deserves. There is still time for Albany to do this right.

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