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In Albany, A Day Of Discord As Lawmakers Return

Hans Pennink
Senate Majority Leader John Flanagan, R-Smithtown, left, speaks to members in the Senate Chamber at the Capitol on the opening day of the legislative session on Wednesday in Albany, N.Y.

The new year for the state legislature has begun in discord, with Republicans in the Senate vowing to take a harder line against Democratic Governor Andrew Cuomo.

The year began without Governor Cuomo, who abandoned the tradition of a State of the State speech on the first day of the session, in favor of a presentation on airport renovations in front of a group of business leaders in New York City. He’ll do speeches across the state later.

Back at the Capitol, the leader of the state Senate was signaling that legislators, who have gone along with many of Governor Cuomo’s proposals in the past six years, will reassert their independence in 2017. Senate Leader John Flanagan read from the state’s constitution, Article III, which states: “The legislative power of the state is vested in the Senate and Assembly.”

“Not the attorney general, and not the comptroller and not the governor,” Flanagan said. “I’m going to stand up for the primacy and independence of this body. It is long overdue.”

Senators applauded.

There’s a back story. Senator Flanagan, along with the other senators and assemblymembers, had expected to receive their first pay raise in 18 years through a non-political pay commission. But Governor Cuomo’s appointees to the panel refused to vote for one, and a special December session to resolve the issue fell through.

Cuomo also, for the first time in the 2016 election cycle, actively backed Democratic candidates to, in some cases, run against sitting incumbent Republicans for the Senate.

Flanagan, speaking to reporters afterward, insists while he’s disappointed, the failed pay raise is “water under the bridge.” And he says his relationship with the governor continues to be “good” though he admits it can be “testy” at times.

But Flanagan went out of his way to criticize one of Governor Cuomo’s proudest achievements, his economic development programs, specifically Cuomo’s Regional Economic Development Councils. The groups, made up of Cuomo appointees, award hundreds of millions of public dollars a year to job creation plans. Flanagan says individual senators and assemblymembers are much better equipped than the governor to decide what programs are best for their region, saying “there’s a lot more talent and intellect and better understanding” among legislators.

Flanagan says there are also questions about the independence of the governor’s Regional Economic Development Councils, and whether there should be more transparency about their dealings.

And he took a shot at a failed plan to bring 1,100 nanotechnology jobs to the Utica area. The developer pulled out after delays and federal corruption charges against the architect of the plan, former SUNY Polytechnic head Alain Kaloyeros. Kaloyeros and eight others, including a former top aide to Cuomo, have been charged with bribery and bid rigging, among other things.

Cuomo’s spokesman Rich Azzopardi was quick to strike back, saying Flanagan is just expressing sour grapes over the loss of a salary increase.

“Senator Flanagan didn’t get a pay raise, so now he wants a return to member items and pork barrel spending,” Azzopardi said in a statement, adding that 70 percent of the public opposes a pay hike for lawmakers.

Before the regional councils, lawmakers divvied up pots of money for projects for their individual districts, known as member items.  

The Senate leader, perhaps anticipating the rhetorical blowback, told senators in his speech that if others “get uptight,” about his remarks, then they should  just “get over it.”

Some Assembly Democrats aren’t any happier over the loss of the pay raise and the chill in their relationship with the governor. But Speaker Carl Heastie publicly is taking a more conciliatory approach. Heastie says he still believes his members “deserve” a pay raise, which now can’t occur until at least 2019. But he says it’s time to move on.

“People are disappointed, but it’s a new year and now we have to get back to work,” Heastie said. “And that’s what we really want to focus on, not holding grudges.”

Heastie says there will be issues where he’ll agree with the governor, and matters where he’ll disagree.

Karen has covered state government and politics for New York State Public Radio, a network of 10 New York and Connecticut stations, since 1990. She is also a regular contributor to the statewide public television program about New York State government, New York Now. She appears on the reporter’s roundtable segment, and interviews newsmakers.