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State of uncertainty ; Cuomo must help New Yorkers clarify inconsistent beliefs about state finances

It's going to be a bloody, bruising fight coming up over the state budget, if the numbers in a new poll hold up.

Facing a budget deficit of nearly $10 billion, Gov. Andrew M. Cuomo will present his budget proposal next week. But the survey by the Quinnipiac University Polling Service shows New York voters holding fundamentally irreconcilable views on how to solve the financial crisis.

For example, while 77 percent of respondents called the budget problems "very serious" and three-quarters said they support a pay freeze for state employees, they split evenly over the possibility of layoffs.

Even more troubling -- if understandable -- is the cognitive dissonance over taxes versus spending cuts. By a 2-to-1 margin, respondents opposed any tax increases while also opposing cuts to the programs where the state spends most of its money: on health and education. Seventy-nine percent opposed cutting state aid to schools and 69 percent opposed cutting Medicaid.

So: Close the $10 billion deficit, but don't raise taxes, don't cut back in the only places where it can help and maybe don't lay anyone off. We don't know who these respondents were, but they sure sound like state legislators.

Leading the state out of the economic and psychological thicket is going to take leadership and it will have to come mainly from Cuomo, but also from Senate Majority Leader Dean Skelos. They will make an unlikely team, but it will take their resolve and a flanking maneuver by the new Committee to Save New York to bring the recalcitrant Assembly along and ensure that the state comes out of this crisis in a stronger, not weaker, position.

Together, they will have to make the case that New York, the nation's highest-taxed state, can't afford to raise taxes, and as one of the most indebted states, can't put more on the credit card. That leaves budget cuts. Furthermore, with health and education comprising more than half the state budget, any significant savings are going to have to come from those areas. The arithmetic doesn't lie.

It will be painful. There's no doubt of that and there's no use denying or sugar-coating it. Indeed, part of Cuomo's task is to prepare New Yorkers to confront that fact and, if not to welcome it, at least to understand that, through it, they can help to produce a healthier state down the road -- one where our children won't have to decamp to find decent jobs, where taxes are closer to the national average, where government is a responsible and ethical steward of the public welfare and -- who knows? -- maybe even some source of pride.

This fight won't be easy. Cuomo seems to have the skills to wage it effectively, but he will need the help that is expected from the Committee to Save New York. The pressure from the special interest will be intense and, without a response from the other side, it could be overwhelming. It always has been in the past.

Despite Cuomo's overwhelming election victory, the poll results suggest that he is starting the budget fight at a disadvantage. New Yorkers will have to come to grips with their own ambivalence about the path ahead if Albany is to become the place they have said they want it to be.

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