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Reform budget practices Comptroller offers a plan that merits consideration

Just about everyone, at this point, accepts that New York's government is a dysfunctional mess. Crooks, con men, philanderers and abusers seem to gravitate to the state capital, which they have turned into their plaything. No area of government shows their corrosive influence more than the state budget.

Lawmakers routinely overspend, keeping New Yorkers' taxes high and mortgaging the state their children will inherit through reckless and persistent borrowing. There have been periodic efforts at reform but, in true Albany fashion, lawmakers do only enough to change the subject. They put lipstick on the pig, pat themselves on the back and go about spending just as before.

Consider: In the face of a historic recession, which now threatens the very solvency of the state, lawmakers last year increased spending by 10 percent. That would have been a huge increase in prosperous times; as matters are today, it verged on the criminal. Plainly, more reforms are required. State Comptroller Thomas P. DiNapoli has laid out a concrete plan. Legislators who want to do something about the abysmal reputation of their workplace should adopt it.

Released last week, DiNapoli's plan would use legislation, constitutional amendments and controls contained in bond covenants to address long-standing problems that have helped to push New York to the brink of financial ruin. Among other useful elements, it would require a multiyear gap-closing plan, impose a binding revenue forecast when lawmakers and the governor can't agree on one, restrict the use of one-shot revenue raisers and, significantly, enact real debt reform.

As DiNapoli points out, more than 94 percent of all state-funded debt was not approved by the voters, despite a constitutional requirement for their assent. Instead, Albany uses the "back door," borrowing through public authorities. DiNapoli's plan would require that state debt is issued by the comptroller and would impose a binding cap on the amount of state debt. It would end lawmakers' addiction to borrowing money to pay for routine expenses.

None of these changes would be necessary if the crooks, con men, philanderers and abusers hadn't taken over state government. In the hands of honest government, New York would budget responsibly, with the needs of constituents in mind, rather than those of the special interests who fill lawmakers' coffers. Then, New York wouldn't have the nation's highest taxes as well as a crushing per-capita debt load that is more than three times the national average.

It's hard to instill honesty where corruption flourishes. But it may be possible to enact procedures that make dishonesty more difficult. True, that will require legislative approval, but even some state lawmakers must at this point be embarrassed about the system they serve. Voters should pressure them to take DiNapoli's plan very, very seriously.

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