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THE STATE LEGISLATURE

Assembly Speaker Sheldon Silver, whose Manhattan home district includes the gaping wound left by the terrorists who destroyed the World Trade Center, hit on exactly the right analogy last week when he described the legislative response to the disaster in health care terms. That response is indeed "triage," dealing with the most pressing needs first.

New York is in recovery mode, and Albany has responded with the right mix of speed and aid. While New York City Mayor Rudolph Giuliani and Gov. George E. Pataki have gained much deserved praise for the leadership and compassion they have shown, state lawmakers also merit gratitude for the instantaneous transition they made from predisaster partisan bickering to solid support for both emergency response to the attacks and the first steps toward healing.

State lawmakers should remain focused on ways to help New York City deal with its devastation. But in the calls already being voiced for New Yorkers to help soften the economic blows by returning to normal routines, there's a gentle reminder: There are other issues, both statewide and regional, that need work as soon as the unfolding situation allows.

Cities and school districts throughout New York still are suffering through economies that didn't share in the Wall Street-driven boom of recent years, and had worsened even more in the unacknowledged recession that was beginning to set in even before the attacks. Those problems may be unavoidably on the back burner now, but they shouldn't fall off the stove.

State leaders understandably need time to assess the overall state impact of the Manhattan disaster on the state treasury. The Federal Emergency Management Agency has agreed to pay for debris removal, emergency protections and repairs to public buildings in Manhattan, but the state already has approved a $5.5 billion rescue and rebuilding package. And the precipitous drop in the stock market may have lasting impacts on state tax revenues from stock transaction profits.

There are real fears, upstate, that all this will trigger major funding diversions as the state surplus evaporates. Cash-strapped cities like Buffalo, counting on the continuing budget process to fill a $31 million state aid shortfall in the bare-bones temporary budget adopted last month, face huge problems if the state coffers run dry. So do school districts that were forced to guess on how much additional state aid -- the talk was between $800 million and $900 million -- would eventually come their way. So do the museums and other cultural institutions that are part of "normal" life and rely on Legislature grants.

Even the proposed new-spending initiatives that had been on Albany's agenda retain their long-term importance, although they properly faded into short-term insignificance. The proposed $75 million start-up funding for a bioinformation technology "center of excellence" based at the University at Buffalo is no less important for Western New York's future than it was two weeks ago. Neither is a decision on casino-related economic development for this region, or the state's promise to spearhead the rebuilding of an already devastated Niagara Falls city core.

This year's State Legislature has had an enormous challenge thrust upon it, and so far it has risen to the occasion. Nobody expects the bipartisan solidarity evoked by the World Trade Center disaster to last forever, but perhaps it can remain both a model and a reminder to lawmakers that cooperation, and a focus on the public rather than political agendas or partisan advantage, can work miracles.

As horrific as the Manhattan attacks were and as urgent as the need to rebuild continues to be, there are added challenges just beyond the immediate horizon. There is much to be proud of in the work already done. The task now is to make this response a positive part of the legacy left by the events of Sept. 11.

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