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THE SENATE SEES THE LIGHT

The New York State Senate is poised to abandon a $350 million raid on county treasuries it had unanimously endorsed only last month. If the Assembly and governor agree, they will go a long way toward sponging off a nasty stain on their records.

Here is the background: The state last month approved the Health Care Reform Act of 2000, which created Family Health Plus, a massive new program designed to provide low- or no-cost health coverage to about 1 million of the state's uninsured.

With the number of uninsured New Yorkers growing daily, the goal was, and remains, worthy. But the state went about the business of crafting this legislation in a way that was, at root, dishonest. First, the state's top three leaders decided to meet behind closed doors to hammer out the details of the law, allowing no public comment or debate. Then they compounded that sin with two indefensible actions.

First, they breached the trust that is constitutionally vested in them by allowing the leader of an influential health-care union to take part in the secret negotiations. Then, in a shameless grab for money that wasn't theirs, they decided to make the counties pay for a quarter of the costs of the new program without ever having consulted state legislators, county leaders or the public.

The outcry from counties -- a protest that was fervently supported by this page -- was immediate and intense. On Thursday, the Senate blinked or, to put it more charitably, acknowledged the error of its ways. Senate Majority Leader Joseph Bruno announced the Senate's intention to absolve the counties of having to pay for part of the program. Instead, it will be funded with state money and federal Medicaid dollars.

There are indications that the Assembly will agree to the change. That would pressure Gov. George E. Pataki to go along, as well, though his reaction Thursday to Bruno's announcement could hardly have been icier. We would hope that our Democratic Assemblymen, the ones who ignored the best interests of Western New York to blindly follow the Assembly leadership, will now lobby Assembly Speaker Sheldon Silver to follow Bruno's example.

Bruno's announcement is a significant development because, one, the Senate appears ready to admit an expensive error and, two, it demonstrates that state lawmakers are not immune to public pressure, after all.

Albany's penchant for government by subterfuge may be its worst habit, one that afflicted all aspects of this legislation.

While providing coverage for the uninsured is a laudable goal, there are legitimate questions about the advisability of a huge new entitlement program at a time when parts of the state are struggling to become economically competitive with other areas of the nation. The program should have been subjected to thorough and intense debate.

That is nothing less than a basic tenet of democracy. Public matters need public discussion. Why is that so hard to understand?

But perhaps we expect too much. Maybe the problems are so ingrained that attempts to fix them are better left for another day. Maybe it is enough for today simply to praise lawmakers for backing off their attempt to take money that rightly belongs to the state's counties and their taxpaying residents.

It can't be easy for them, and they deserve a pat on the back.

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