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Politics and Government

A day of discord as state lawmakers return to Albany

New York State Senate

The new year for the state legislature has begun in discord, with an absent governor and Republicans in the Senate vowing to take a harder line against Democrat Gov. Andrew Cuomo. 

The year began without Cuomo, who abandoned the tradition of conducting a State of the State speech on the first day of the session in favor of giving a presentation on airport renovations to 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 Cuomo’s proposals in the past six years, will reassert their independence in 2017.

Sen. Leader John Flanagan read from Article III of the state’s constitution, which says, “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. Flanagan, along with the other senators and Assembly members, had expected to receive their first pay raise in 18 years through a nonpolitical pay commission. But Cuomo’s appointees to the panel refused to vote for one, and a special December session to resolve the issue fell through.

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

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

But Flanagan went out of his way to criticize one of Cuomo’s proudest achievements, his economic development programs, specifically the 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 said individual senators and Assembly members 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 said there also are 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 spokesman Rich Azzopardi was quick to strike back, saying Flanagan is just expressing sour grapes over the loss of a salary increase.

“Sen. 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 increase for lawmakers.

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

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 said he still believes his members deserve a pay raise, which now can’t occur until at least 2019. But he said 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 said there will be issues where he’ll agree with the governor and matters where he will disagree.