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EDITORIAL: Budget wheels turn, but will plans show discipline?

It's one of the toughest budget years in memory, with a $9.2-billion deficit, so it's good to see the wheels in Albany turning forward. While fear of an angry electorate may be inspiring efforts to meet the March 31 deadline, it's more important that lawmakers produce a disciplined agreement.

The State Senate Democratic majority, normally fractious, pulled together all 32 members to pass a budget memo on Monday. It retains most of the cuts Gov. David A. Paterson advised in education and health care, but a close read reveals that some hard decisions have been put off - such as where $1.4-billion in school aid cuts will land. This leaves open questions for Long Island. Still, their provision allowing schools to use restricted reserves next year is a good one, which the Assembly should emulate.

For its part, the Assembly appears headed to dismiss the Senate bill on austerity spending that watered down the consequences of a rejected school budget. The Assembly is on track to publish its budget memo today. Its spending plan is expected to cut school aid by less - $800 million - and to rely on $2 billion in borrowing proposed by Lt. Gov. Richard Ravitch. If more debt is necessary, and we wish it weren't, it should come firmly bound to the balanced-budget reforms Ravitch proposes. The Senate's idea to refinance $700 million in tobacco bonds does nothing to reform budget gimmickry.

Later this week, the two houses should reconcile their bills in open conference committee meetings and shun the backroom handshakes that characterized last year's expensive deal. hN

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