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EDITORIAL: The state of the state? It's political

Gov. David A. Paterson hit the mark yesterday on returning credibility to state government and creating jobs. Paterson noted a public mood of "cynicism and scorn" about Albany. That's an understatement. But the public's confidence will come only if legislators make the right choices in response to the state's economic crisis.

State of the State speeches are designed to aspire. But there's more cause than ever this year to wonder if this governor can deliver. Not only because the state is facing an enormous budget deficit and a drop-off in federal stimulus funds, but also because Paterson has next to no support from the legislature. At the end of the address, he implored legislators, "Help me, follow me, so that New York can turn the corner."

But his actions belie this plea. Faced with poor poll numbers heading into the fall election, Paterson has been blaming the legislature at every turn for Albany's mess. This week, he jumped out ahead of Senate and Assembly Democrats, who were nearing agreement on ethics reform. Paterson announced his own kitchen-sink plan that includes such non-starters as term limits for the legislature. As a 24-year Albany veteran, Paterson knows that isn't how agreements are forged. But it makes one heck of a campaign platform.

At the start of his speech, Paterson dispensed with acknowledging other dignitaries in the room - probably wisely since, as he pointed out, the public is in no mood to salute incumbents. Besides, the applause meter might have registered more support for other Democrats, such as Tom DiNapoli, the state comptroller, and Andrew Cuomo, the attorney general. Paterson never strays far from political calculation.

For that matter, neither does Albany's Republican leader, Sen. Dean Skelos (R-Rockville Centre). His response to the governor's address was pure campaign strategy.

Of all the reform talk, nobody has proposed the one change that might dampen the political fighting: turning over the drawing of district lines to a neutral group. Neither party is willing to give it up, so the prize will go to whichever wins the Senate majority. This one factor will fuel a bloody budget battle more beholden to political agendas than to citizens.

Paterson's dual emphasis on government credibility and the economy signal that he is moving closer to a pro-business agenda. We'll await his budget later this month before passing judgment on his economic plan. But some items appear praiseworthy: a revolving loan fund for small business start-ups; a four-year, structurally balanced budget plan; a clean-energy agenda; capping the growth of state government; and promoting upstate as an inexpensive location for companies' back-office operations. If the upstate economy improved, it would take pressure off Long Island's oversized financial contribution to state coffers.

Other initiatives appear doomed, such as the $25-million fund to "create the next Silicon Valley" here in New York. That's nowhere near enough money, and the country already has a Silicon Valley. New York has to be more original to succeed.

Paterson is thinking big, but he must win allies in the legislature to pass his agenda. With New York's economy at stake, it would be a terrible time to allow politics to win the day. hN