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New Senate majority leader should insist on reforming dysfunctional Legislature

And so, the drama ends as it had to, and as it did in the recent past. With it, the New York State Senate got a new leader, albeit one who was hastily chosen and inadequately vetted.

First – meaning just last week – Dean Skelos insisted he would stay on as the Senate majority leader, despite having been accused of serious federal crimes that go to the heart of his public office. And his besotted acolytes – including Sen. Catharine Young, R-Olean – swore they would support him, regardless of the charges or the smarmy wiretapped conversations recorded by the FBI.

But some Republicans objected and, predictably, their numbers grew as senators acknowledged the seriousness of the charges and what they meant, not only to Skelos’ ability to lead the chamber, but to the reputation of the Senate, itself, and of members who believed they could continue to conduct business as usual while their leader stands accused of felonies.

On Monday, after a final, futile spasm of resistance, in which Skelos threatened the future of Republican control of the Senate, he gave up. A brief succession fight between an upstate contender and one from Long Island ended with Suffolk County’s John J. Flanagan emerging as the winner.

It’s the second consecutive time the traditionally upstate position has gone to Long Island. Nothing requires the leadership job to go upstate, of course – at least nothing other than fairness and balance. The Assembly speaker’s position is solidly rooted downstate, after all, and all statewide positions – governor, attorney general and comptroller – are occupied by downstaters or Long Islanders. All, especially Gov. Andrew M. Cuomo, have worked diligently to represent upstate interests, but the plain fact is that with the defeat of John DeFrancisco of Syracuse for the leadership post, upstate remains without a formal voice in the highest reaches of state government. It’s not acceptable.

Senators were, perhaps understandably, driven to act fast. The chamber needs a leader and Skelos had to go. Still, the members who voted for Flanagan appear to have given no consideration to what the Senate and state government in general need in their leaders at a time of crisis driven by criminality, a lack of ethics and a pervasive sense of entitlement. That’s not to say that Flanagan couldn’t be that leader, only that senators gave that issue short shrift.

Will Flanagan insist on a higher level of ethics? He needs to. Will he work with Cuomo and new Assembly Speaker Carl Heastie to push for new laws governing the conduct of elected officials in Albany? Why wouldn’t he?

Will he move to decentralize control over the Senate, giving committee chairmen more authority and allowing rank-and-file members to force a vote on legislation? As matters stand, the Senate leader’s power is absolute. He controls the budget, the chairmanships and the measures that come to the Senate floor for a vote.

It’s a power-hungry model and part of the reason that the Brennan Center for Justice at New York University Law School concluded 11 years ago that New York State had the country’s most dysfunctional legislature. The model also can lead to arrogance and the sense of entitlement that forms the backdrop of the criminal allegations against Skelos and Silver. That, too, must change.

New York lawmakers, a remarkably craven bunch, seem willing to tolerate that emasculating culture, though it’s hard to imagine why. Presumably, they sought state office to make some kind of difference, not to be controlled, manipulated and deprived of official influence.

The good news, at least, is that Flanagan said New Yorkers can relax about whether he is among the targets of U.S. Attorney Preet Bharara, whose investigations have led to the charges against Skelos and Silver. Asked by a reporter what assurances he could offer that he was not under investigation, he said, “I don’t believe there’s anything to worry about.”

It was, perhaps, a little less declarative than New Yorkers might have wanted, under the circumstances, but it’s something. He also noted that he has given up his private law practice to focus on the majority leader’s job.

That’s a start, certainly a better one than Skelos or Silver ever made. But there is much more to be done. The question now is whether Flanagan is up to the job of fixing the Senate and, more than that, if he has any interest in it.