ALBANY — Senate Majority Leader John Flanagan strongly defended a scandal-scarred State Legislature Wednesday, saying in his opening remarks of the 2016 session that lawmakers’ “good work” shouldn’t be overshadowed by the recent convictions of a few.
“When I look around the room, I see faces of integrity,” Flanagan (R-East Northport) said in a speech on the state Senate floor. Citing property-tax caps and school-aid hikes, he said: “We should not apologize for the good work that gets done. We should not apologize for having chosen a noble profession.”
Flanagan said legislators will discuss ethics laws in the wake of the convictions of ex-Senate Majority Leader Dean Skelos and ex-Assembly Speaker Sheldon Silver on corruption charges. But Flanagan said taxes, jobs and schools are higher priorities.
Flanagan’s remarks outlined a potential strategy for the Republican-led Senate in 2016, an election year: putting most of the focus on pocketbook issues. In fact, the majority in both houses talked about focusing on core issues for their constituents — Assembly Speaker Carl Heastie spoke of hiking the minimum wage and cutting taxes for the middle class and raising them for the wealthy, while political minorities urged ethics and campaign-finance reforms.
“I don’t know about you, but I don’t like being referred to as a bum,” Assembly Minority Leader Brian Kolb (R-Canandaigua) said in his opening remarks. “ . . . I am pleading, asking you, let’s change how this place is operated.”
The convictions of Silver and Skelos rocked New York’s political establishment, sparking calls for changes including going to a full-time legislature, banning outside income and closing campaign-finance loopholes that allow companies to essentially ignore contribution limits.
Gov. Andrew M. Cuomo has touted new laws requiring more disclosure on lawmakers’ outside incomes, but has said no laws can eradicate unethical behavior. He has promised to propose more changes in his State of the State speech Wednesday.
In a separate Newsday interview, Flanagan, who won a power struggle to succeed Skelos, acknowledged state government’s reputation has taken a hit with the Skelos and Silver scandals, while contending the convictions show current ethics laws are working.
“We have problem that has created a perception that there is a lack of ethical behavior,” Flanagan said. “But if you look at our existing laws, people are being investigated. And people are being convicted. . . . I think people can make a fair argument that our existing laws are pretty stringent right now, though that should not dissuade us from having further discussions.”
Addressing looming issues, Flanagan wouldn’t rule out a minimum-wage hike backed by Cuomo and Democrats, but said it had to be offset by help for businesses. The senator said he’d restore school aid cut during the recession, resist a ban on lawmakers’ outside incomes and oppose public financing of political campaigns.
He said the legislature’s best way to address its public image problem is to focus on bread-and-butter issues. “I know this is going to sound oversimplified, but I believe if we listen to our constituents, listen to the taxpayers, and follow through and do our jobs, that’s more important, I think, than anything else,” Flanagan said.
With Michael Gormley