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This just in: state to spend more Legislature finds ample Pataki budget too stringent for re-election needs

We wondered when the Senate and Assembly would deign to unveil their 2006-2007 spending plans, since by mid-March they have only two weeks to finalize and discuss semi-publicly a budget that New Yorkers live with all year. But then we remembered it legitimately takes a long time to figure out how to spend billions more of the taxpayers' money.

Now comes a pivotal time. Gov. George E. Pataki, absent from Albany for several weeks as he recovers his health, is not seeking re-election. Both houses of the Legislature are, 212 members in all. Two of them really matter: the Assembly speaker and Senate majority leader. The confluence of out-of-the-trenches governor and needy legislative leaders doesn't bode well for taxpayer savings.

The leaders say they want to spend between $1.2 billion and $1.8 billion more than the governor proposed; the governor's top budget official says it's actually $2.3 billion to $3 billion more. In any case, the compromises reached won't cut the budget, or even the rate of spending, for New Yorkers, who share the nation's heaviest per-person tax burden. In addition, the leaders rejected Pataki's plans to reduce Medicaid costs and the Senate rejected the governor's $1 boost on the cigarette tax. Pataki rightfully said the legislative plans "spend far too much and reform too little."

Most of the spending increases would go to public education. While improving public schools is a laudable priority, just throwing more money into systems that need reform is not always the best recourse, though it probably pays the most returns for campaigning legislators.

The two houses offered Buffalo and Erie County about $20 million more in aid, and local leaders are pushing for $30 million. In an encouraging display of coordination by two leaders who get a little prickly in each other's company, Erie County Executive Joel A. Giambra and Buffalo Mayor Byron W. Brown seem to be working together by pledging to spend the extra money on joint projects. Limit use of that money to achieving long-term cost reductions and contract buybacks.

Money for State University of New York construction projects -- a $25 million engineering building at the University at Buffalo and a $40 million tech center at Buffalo State -- make sense. Many universities, aided by endowment booms, are building facilities designed to help maintain America's primacy in higher education worldwide. SUNY needs to keep pace.

Speaking of keeping pace, it's hard to stay abreast of the Legislature as it zooms to spend more on re-election themes when upstate's economy remains challenged and its high tax burdens discourage business investment and expansion.

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