In assembling the multiple moving parts of the state budget puzzle, the legislature has a chance to do what it should have done long ago: Unshackle SUNY.

Gov. David A. Paterson and the Senate have now reached agreement on much of Paterson's proposal to let the State University of New York set its own tuition rates, indexed to inflation; to let SUNY keep the increased revenue, which has often been siphoned away for other purposes; and to loosen regulatory restraints. That leaves it up to the Assembly.

This year, with the energetic support of a new SUNY chancellor, Nancy Zimpher, Paterson offered an immensely ambitious bill called the Public Higher Education Empowerment and Innovation Act. It's not just about tuition, but that's the part of the bill that most galls the Assembly.

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Much of the lawmakers' reluctance comes from fear of losing control. But they talk a lot about "access" - a fear that, if SUNY sets tuition, our public university will be less accessible to students of modest means. Zimpher promises to make sure that doesn't happen, and she deserves a chance to try.

In negotiations, Paterson is tying SUNY to aid for elementary and secondary education. The Assembly should do both. If the university somehow abuses flexibility, lawmakers could revoke the new rules. But there's a very good chance that SUNY is right: It will provide a better education and create more jobs if its handcuffs are off. hN