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OPINION: If voters won't make hard choices, why should politicians?

Lawrence C. Levy, a former Newsday columnist, heads the National Center for Suburban Studies at Hofstra University, which has received state funding. He helped develop the Newsday/Hofstra poll.

"We have met the enemy and he is us."

Cartoonist Walt Kelly first floated his most famous phrase in 1953 in an attack on McCarthyism. A generation later, he put the words in the mouth of his best-known character, Pogo, in a lament against environmental degradation.

If Kelly were alive today, he might have added to his "we, the enemies" list the voters of New York State, especially those of property-tax tortured Long Island.

A new Newsday/Hofstra University poll depicts an electorate that, overall, is unhappy with most of its state officials and the soaring cost of government, but remains curiously unwilling to back the most drastic remedies for closing the state's budget deficit or curing high spending in general.

While the poll showed strong support for some dramatic reforms - such as term limits on state legislators, lower limits on campaign contributions in state races, and voter enactment of laws through initiative and referendum - voters aren't willing to go as far as amending the state's constitution or firing state employees and local teachers.

If the poll respondents went to a Tea Party rally, the beverage of protest would have to be served lukewarm, not boiling hot, and the guests would have a hard time deciding on milk or lemon.

This sort of voter uncertainty is a prescription for paralysis - for more of the same policies and practices that produced record state budget deficits and some of the nation's highest property taxes.

Even with the number of state officials stained by ethical and legal charges, the poll suggests that voters aren't so much "mad as hell" as they are "frustrated as heck." Some 36 percent reported being "angry," but 47 percent merely "frustrated," a gap that could mean the difference between a full-blown tax-revolt or more selective incumbent targeting. Forty-two percent gave a thumbs down to all five suggested school budget cuts, with huge majorities rejecting layoffs of teachers (77 percent), reductions in teacher pay (66 percent), and decreases in educational programs and services in general (64 percent).

No wonder voters approved school district budgets overwhelmingly. Tuesday's results and the Newsday/Hofstra poll indicate that voters are more interested in officials doing a better job in delivering value for their tax dollars than in an indiscriminate political bloodletting.

That's an important lesson for school and other elected officials - especially the state legislators, who are held collectively in extremely low regard. School budget increases came in lower than in recent memory, with an unprecedented number of school boards and unions rolling back contractual increases. Voters noticed.

If state lawmakers can show that same kind of resolve in Albany, the poll and school-vote results indicate, they too might escape the wrath of voters. History, however, suggests otherwise - that legislators will interpret the equivocation in the poll and the approval of school budgets as an excuse to stay the course. It would be hard to blame them.

"One reason the politicians in Albany can't agree on painful changes is perhaps that the voters can't agree on them either," says G. Evans Witt, of Princeton Survey Research Associates International, which conducted the Newsday/Hofstra poll. "Provided with a list of seven steps that could reduce the budget gap, a majority of the voters reject each individual one."

Seventy-eight percent of voters don't approve of cuts in health care and 87 percent oppose reductions in education to close the state's $9-billion-plus budget gap. But similarly huge majorities reject raising the state sales and income taxes or local property taxes. Voters seem to be telling politicians to find an easy way out until better economic times return.

That usually means borrowing, inflating revenue estimates or other fiscal gimmicks designed to put off the pain for another year and avoid the wrath of voters, who want more services but don't want to pay more for them.

And that approach to budgeting has been and can be a recipe for fiscal disaster.

Voters can, and do, blame state politicians for not doing their jobs well, but the poll suggests that Pogo had it right. If the people don't demand leadership - much less creativity and courage - their intrinsically timid elected officials won't show any. If the people can't make up their minds about what they're willing to sacrifice, their elected officials won't volunteer to guess.

It's time for leadership all right, but from below. That's what many school districts showed. That's what voters wanted. And that's what voters did - and will - reward.