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Cuomo on the Woes Of State Government

HOW timely that New York governor Mario Cuomo should come out with a new book just as the state's 1994 gubernatorial contest is moving into full swing.

Barring an upset in the Sept. 13 Republican primary, Democrat Cuomo will likely face George Pataki, a relatively obscure - but politically moderate - state senator. Pataki has already announced that he will attack Cuomo on crime and high taxes, areas of vulnerability for the three-term liberal.

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With the publication of ``The New York Idea: An Experiment in Democracy,'' Cuomo has set out what he presumably hopes will be a far broader agenda. Part apologia for the failures of Democratic liberalism in New York (where poverty, crime, shrinking payroll jobs, and homelessness continue to be enormous challenges despite massive expenditures by state and local governments), and part ``rah-rah'' political tract (Cuomo ends the book with a profile of tourist attractions and a list of ``firsts'' in New York), the book at its best is a case study of the difficulties of state government in the waning years of the 20th century.

Cuomo has penned a strong case for greater cooperation between federal and state government, as well as the private sector. In a society that has never put a high premium on intellectual acumen from its elected leaders, Cuomo is probably the United States's closest approximation of a ``philosopher-politician.'' His ringing calls for liberalism may infuriate his enemies; but few will deny his compassion and tolerance, and his broad grasp of issues. In that sense, this book stands on its own as an excellent primer for a discussion of federalism in the 1990s.

Cuomo has long been an advocate of what he calls the state's, and each individual's, obligation to ``family'' - family being defined as the larger community of all Americans. To Cuomo, ``family'' means ``an obligation to the old, to the very young, to the distraught and disabled, people without work, without enough to eat; to those who sometimes lack a roof over their heads; to people whom the promise of free enterprise has yet to reach.''

Opinion polls show Americans wary of government. In the fall campaign, Republicans will surely remind voters of Cuomo's liberalism in a state where the aggregate tax bite remains one of the highest in the nation and where the governor routinely vetoes legislative efforts to reimpose the death penalty.

In ``The New York Idea,'' however, Cuomo casts himself as a pragmatic fiscal moderate out to slash the costs and payroll of big state government (he has a section called ``Creating a Leaner, More Responsive Government''), while taking a balanced stance against crime.

Alas, such an effort didn't work for Cuomo's fellow Democratic liberal, Gov. Jim Florio, cast out of office by a Republican in neighboring New Jersey last year. And most unlikely, voters rejected a Democratic liberal incumbent (David Dinkins) for a Republican (Rudolph Giuliani) in the very bastion of liberal democracy: New York City. Cuomo may fare better, however.

New Yorkers were recently stunned to learn that the Empire State has now slipped into third place in the US in population, behind California and Texas. But New York will never really decline into obscurity if it continues to turn out thoughtful leaders like Mario Cuomo. Whether one is pro- or anti-Cuomo, his book deserves careful reading.

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