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The Senate did its part Tuesday, completing the legislative portion of the Great New York Health-Care Ambush. All that remains is for Gov. George Pataki to sign the measure and an expensive, historic change in the state's health-care system will have been completed with no public hearings, no serious debate and no visible sense of shame.

The Health Care Reform Act of 2000 continues its namesake predecessor in supporting the state's hospitals while adding a $2.9 billion package of new insurance programs, principally Family Health Plus, a Medicaid-based initiative whose funding includes a surprise grab for county money.

Although the Assembly's Republican minority generally opposed the bill when they voted on it last week, the Senate vote was unanimous, with nine members excused, including Anthony Nanula, D-Buffalo. Western New York senators who voted their approval were: George D. Maziarz, R-North Tonawanda; Patricia McGee, R-Franklinville; Mary Lou Rath, R-Williamsville; William T. Stachowski, D-Buffalo; and Dale Volker, R-Depew. In case those names sound familiar, yes, these are the same legislators who wring their hands at election time about unfunded mandates and profligate spending that make Western New York economically uncompetitive.

The unanimous vote is a telling sign of how indistinguishable Democrats and Republicans have become in Albany, their rhetoric notwithstanding. What they stand for mainly is re-election.

It is an especially discouraging turn among the state's Republicans, who have complained the loudest about the economic costs of high taxes, unfunded mandates and the pervasiveness of state government. Faced with a new unfunded mandate on the state's counties, the senators merely shrugged and asked, "What can we do?"

They have a point. The bill was too important to ignore and, pressured by their leaders' cynical decision to delay negotiations until the 1996 law was about to expire, they were put in a position of either ratifying a clandestine agreement and its raid on county finances, or putting the health of the state's hospitals and regional economies at risk, Western New York's included.

But if the lawmakers' problem was real, it was one of their own making. Senate Majority Leader Joseph Bruno and Assembly Speaker Sheldon Silver have the authority to negotiate sweeping new laws in secret because the rules say they can. Crucial legislation can be delayed until the last possible second because the rules make room for that kind of irresponsibility.

And who approves the rules? Legislators do. Together, they have the power to reform the system, but they won't do it for fear of losing the perks of power. They are either too comfortable or too intimidated to bother.

Whatever the benefits of this legislation, it sends a clear message that the state still is conducting business as usual. Just as New Yorkers begin to think things are changing, Albany shows the rest of the country that it has learned nothing about its impact on the state's economy -- especially upstate's business climate. It's still ready to saddle municipalities with large entitlement programs and unfunded mandates, sending the word out far and wide that there are better places to do business.

It also sends a message that says this state has no use for the democratic notion of open government.

Guess who pays for that?

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