Joseph Dolman. Newsday. 1/22/2004.

It's still a favorite subject for an army of aging romantics perched on barstools throughout the five boroughs. Give them half a chance and they will launch into a seminar on New York City as Casablanca West.

They'll tell you about Big Tim Sullivan and the Tammany wedding-chapel racket he ran in the basement of City Hall. Their eyes will grow misty at ancient tales of Boss Tweed's kleptocracy. They will carefully recite Tammany ward-heeler George Washington Plunkitt's declaration: "I seen my opportunities and I took 'em." They will give you eyewitness accounts of the life and times of Brooklyn Boss Meade Esposito.

They will insist that, for all the efforts at reform over the years, the ethos of colorful raffishness remains embedded in city life. But I'm here to tell you that it's over. It's history. The city today is cleaner than a surgical ward at Bellevue. If it's a taste of the old ways you crave, you'll have to go north to Albany.

Yesterday, Gov. George Pataki strode onto the stage in a building they call The Egg and set forth his plans for a state budget of close to $100 billion. Now, Pataki is no Boss Tweed. As politicians go, he's about as colorless as air. I've never heard anyone call him dishonest. And he has his altruistic moments.

But yesterday wasn't one of them.

Exhibit A was the lurid scheme he unveiled to satisfy state courts and give the city enough money so that its 1.1 million students might stand a shot at a sound basic education. Pataki would come up with the money from a dedicated fund fed by a proliferation of video lottery terminals around the state. Ultimately, he insisted, the proposal would generate $6 billion over the next five years - not only for New York City, but for other high-needs districts as well.

It took Assemb. Steve Sanders (D-Manhattan) maybe a nanosecond after the speech had ended to lambaste the proposal as "woefully inadequate." His point was that poor school districts around the state need something a bit more solid than to let a thousand gambling dens bloom. Assemb. Barry Grodenchik (D-Queens) added that this was not exactly a neighborhood enrichment program. "I don't want gambling in the middle of my community," he explained.

About the only thing you can say for the plan is that it doesn't raise taxes. As the Citizens Budget Commission pointed out two months ago, New York State residents already bear the worst tax burden in the nation. And, oh yes, the plan also takes care not to hurt richer suburban districts in the name of equalization.

But let's be realistic. Because it's Albany, who knows how the idea will finally play out. The state's real business takes place in secret as the governor, Assembly speaker and Senate majority leader sit down to hash things out. Casablanca? Imagine a closed meeting in the back of Rick's American Café.

What hangs in the balance? Oh, nothing much. Just the financial status of nearly every school system and county and municipality in the state.

Now here's the weird part. The New York City budget by comparison is a model of transparency and trick-free public administration these days.

In his own budget presentation last week, Mayor Mike Bloomberg laid out his plans with the earnestness of a Boston puritan. When a reporter asked what might happen in next year's budget as city elections draw near, the mayor didn't even try to conceal his anger. He shot back that he's been an honest person for 61 years and had no plans to change. End of discussion.

Of course, the essential reason the city does trick-free financing now is that it had grown so lax by the 1970s it almost sank under the weight of its own deceit. And who forced it to reform? The short answer: Albany. The result was a long slow death for the spirit of Boss Tweed at City Hall. I just wonder how far Albany will have to sink before it takes a shot of its own medicine.

Joseph Dolman is a columnist and member of Newsday's editorial board. His e-mail address is nycdolman@aol.com.