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GOOD LAW, BAD POLICY

For as good a look as you can have at what is both right and wrong about our state government, consider a proposed state law to further defray the cost of prescription drugs in New York.

The bill, co-sponsored by Sen. George Maziarz, R-North Tonawanda, would double the number of elderly New Yorkers eligible for the state's 12-year-old program known as EPIC -- Elderly Pharmaceutical Insurance Coverage program. Under the bill, seniors who earn less than $35,000 and couples who earn less than $50,000 would qualify for coverage. The current figures are $18,500 for individuals and $24,400 for couples.

Considered only on its merits, the proposed expansion is worth pursuing and the money is available. Senate Majority Leader Joseph Bruno wants to use $125 million of the state's tobacco settlement to pay for it.

But the legislation also provides a clear insight into why nothing ever improves in New York. A government subsidy for seniors, however helpful it may be, will do nothing to lower the price of prescription drugs. It is akin to the state Power for Jobs program, which provides low-cost electricity to qualifying businesses but does nothing to lower the exorbitant cost of power. Both programs treat a symptom, not the underlying illness.

In fairness, the state has limited ability to affect the price of drugs, but it does -- in theory, at least -- have the power to change the way it does the public's business. Its approach to this bill -- and to the whole proposed state budget, for that matter -- shows once again that even if it has the power, it lacks the interest.

The EPIC expansion and virtually every one of Gov. George E. Pataki's pending and proposed tax cuts are being funded through the surpluses in which Albany is wallowing. None is being paid for through significant reductions in the cost of governing this state.

Cutting taxes and offering affordable drugs to the elderly are certainly useful ways to spend a surplus, but what happens when the day comes, as it must, that we sink again into recession -- or simply zero growth? Without having taken advantage of the good times to prepare for the bad -- which in New York means curing its persistent high-spending habits -- we will again face a crisis, as we did a decade ago.

You fix the roof while the sun shines, according to the adage and when it comes to money, these are brilliant days in Albany. The state should be taking advantage of this remarkable moment to fix the institutional problems that plague this state and its economy, especially upstate.

That's not happening. The Senate's plan to expand EPIC may be good politics and, given circumstances, even good policy. But it is also clear evidence that Albany sees no need to do any repair work. They should be fixing the roof. Instead, our state leaders are out playing on the swings.

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