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PATAKI'S COOLNESS TO GOP HEALTH PLAN PUTS PASSAGE AT RISK

As Republicans across the state boasted about a new Senate proposal to relieve county governments of $340 million in costs for a new state health-insurance plan for poor people, Gov. George E. Pataki greeted the idea with little enthusiasm, a development that could kill the measure's chances.

In yet another sign of growing troubles between Pataki and his usual allies in the Republican-led Senate, the governor wasted little time Thursday in not endorsing the proposal unveiled by Senate Majority Leader Joseph L. Bruno, R-Brunswick.

The proposal would save 57 counties and New York City $340 million for a program adopted last month that would require county governments to tap into proceeds from the 1998 tobacco settlement.

Pataki, who was on a Florida fund-raising trip for his expected re-election campaign in 2002, defended the new health-care law as a program that means savings, not costs, for county governments.

Criticizing the Senate proposal as one of just "many politically popular proposals" that will be floated during the forthcoming state budget debate, Pataki vowed that he would protect "the state's fiscal integrity this year and in years to come."

A Pataki spokesman declined to elaborate on the governor's statement. "I think it speaks for itself," the spokesman said.

The governor's reaction, blasted privately by some Republicans, came as Assembly Speaker Sheldon Silver, D-Manhattan, offered more positive, although vague, support for relieving counties of the unfunded mandate.

Patricia Lynch, a spokeswoman for Silver, said the Democratic-led house has advocated that the counties not be required to share in the costs of the new Family Health Plus program, which will provide coverage for hundreds of thousands of uninsured New Yorkers in the next several years. But "the governor was adamant in his opposition to that," she said.

In December, lawmakers and Pataki approved the Health Care Reform Act. The nearly $10 billion, 3 1/2 -year program includes funding for hospitals that train doctors and reimburses them for care they provide to low-income patients without health insurance. A previous version of the law included a health-insurance program for poor children. The new Health Care Reform Act bill would supplement that with Family Health Plus, which includes coverage for adults as well.

But the measure requires counties to pay one-fourth of the costs of the health-insurance plan, a provision that county governments across New York railed against as an unfunded mandate from Albany.

Facing voters this fall, Senate Republicans, led by Bruno, on Thursday offered a proposal to have the state pick up the entire cost of the program.

County governments had planned to use the tobacco-settlement proceeds for a host of initiatives, including property-tax relief, debt reduction and health programs. For Erie County, the Senate plan would save taxpayers $13.7 million over three years; Niagara County would save $2.6 million.

The Pataki administration maintains that the Health Care Reform Act would mean savings for counties because of a package of $1 billion worth of cuts to the Medicaid program, which the counties fund in part. But county governments maintained that those cuts were already on the books, and it was assumed that they would just be continued.

County governments accused the state of raiding their finances, and the tobacco settlement money, to pay for a politically popular health program.

Sounding a defensive tone, Pataki, in a statement, talked of saving county governments and New York City $3.3 billion since he took office in 1995, chiefly through Medicaid cuts.

Top Erie County lawmakers, Republican and Democrat, gave a sigh of relief Thursday at news that the state likely will keep its hands off the county's $548 million share of the tobacco settlement.

County Executive Joel A. Giambra said it will now be "a lot easier" for him to cut county taxes by 30 percent, even with the Health Care Reform Act in place.

Top Erie County Democrats expressed jubilation at the reversal, calling it proof that they were right a month ago when they criticized the Health Care Reform Act as an unfunded state mandate.

"It's a very good day for Erie County. It's not done yet -- but it's a very good day," said Legislature Chairman Charles M. Swanick, D-Kenmore. "The HCRA legislation was flawed when they adopted it."

While county Democrats celebrated -- with only an occasional "I told you so" to the county's GOP leadership -- the area's Republican state leaders worked to dispel the notion that they acted too quickly in passing the act in December, when it called for a county share.

State Sen. Dale M. Volker, R-Depew, leader of the Western New York delegation, said passing the act at the time was a better option for Erie County than dealing with the repercussions of voting against it.

Because the county's payments were not due to kick in for several months -- with the bulk of them not due until 2003 -- Republicans knew that they had time to pass the act first and work out the details later, Volker said.

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