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FOUR MEN IN A ROOM

Our state leaders, ever responsive to calls for good government, have finally addressed complaints that major legislation affecting our lives is too often decided by three men in a room. They added another man.

The extra man, Dennis Rivera, is the head of the state's largest private-sector union, with 190,000 members who work in hospitals, nursing homes and other health-care facilities. How's that for a recipe for making public policy? Take the powerful head of a special-interest group and let him help create legislation that affects his membership. Call it public policy by conflict of interest.

The tentative agreement on health-care reform was reached, as usual, after private negotiations between Gov. Pataki, Assembly Speaker Sheldon Silver and Senate Majority Leader Joseph L. Bruno. But this time, Rivera, president of Local 1199 Health and Human Services Union, actually had a seat at the negotiating table.

Even more cozy for the union, one of Rivera's top lieutenants, who had been a top aide to Silver before leaving to work for the union, conducted face-to-face negotiations with one of Pataki's top negotiators on the health-care reform legislation that was announced Friday and approved by the Assembly in the early hours of Wednesday morning, presumeably so no one could see it grabbing the tobacco-settlement money from every county in the state.

The agreement appears to have resulted in legislation that addresses two legitimate concerns -- shoring up financially ailing hospitals and providing health insurance for about a million people without coverage. It would pay for that by increasing the tax on a pack of cigarettes by 55 cents and using some of the state's settlement money from the tobacco lawsuit. It also would require counties to pay about as much as they're going to get from their share of the tobacco settlement.

The original Assembly bill passed to replace the expiring Health Care Reform Act did not include the charge to the counties. Yet members of the local Assembly delegation were not aware until shortly before the vote that later negotiations had resulted in counties being stuck with an unfunded mandate.

There is a problem when a union official knows more about a legislative agreement vital to this area than its own representatives, especially when that union official has a much stronger interest in New York City concerns than in upstate apprehensions.

But that's what happens when legislation is created behind closed doors. The fact that a union leader -- whose primary considerations are with the best interests of his members -- is involved in those closed talks just makes this scenario more disturbing than ever. One longtime leader of a special-interest group in Albany said he hadn't seen anything like this in 15 to 20 years.

Nobody would deny that interest groups have every right to lobby their legislators and the governor. But to give the leader of one interest group in particular a seat at the negotiating table is simply another example of why the Legislature is so dysfunctional. Even worse, it appears to many that Rivera got his seat by extortion. Some observers believe Rivera got his invitation to the table so he wouldn't repeat the union's vicious attack ads against Pataki that ran during this year's budget deliberations.

So now we are where we always seem to end up. State legislators have been given a fait accompli that most likely will result in this deal being rubber stamped. Even a Senate leader who defended the process said it was wrong to announce the agreement before members saw it.

Coming up with an agreement less than two weeks before the old act expired was guaranteed to prevent the kind of open discussion this matter deserves. It would have been better to simply extend it for a month so legislators could have considered the impacts of a complex piece of legislation and given the public a chance to comment.

That's par for the course. What is more disconcerting is that the process is getting worse, not better. If three men in a room was a recipe for bad government, now you can add your favorite special-interest group to the recipe. Talk about leaving a bad taste in your mouth.

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