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Flanagan calls education the state’s top priority

John J. Flanagan Jr. acknowledges that as a Long Islander, he has much to learn about Buffalo and upstate.

But on his first visit to Buffalo as the new majority leader of the State Senate Tuesday, the Suffolk County Republican didn’t hesitate in the slightest to identify education as his main focus for not only Buffalo, but all of New York.

“Education is absolutely New York State’s top priority,” he said during a meeting with editors and reporters of The Buffalo News. “Absolutely, fundamentally, constitutionally.”

It’s not difficult for Flanagan to prioritize education following five years as chairman of the Senate Education Committee. He noted that his Tuesday meeting with Mayor Byron W. Brown included emphasis on the needs of Buffalo public schools and agreed that the term “crisis” applies here and in other cities, including Rochester.

But he also made it clear that the majority caucus backs his views that “more money thrown at the problem” will not cure the ills of big city systems, nor will the concept of mayoral control, backed earlier this year by Brown and Assemblywoman Crystal D. Peoples-Stokes, D-Buffalo. That idea died for lack of a Republican sponsor in the Senate, and appears to inspire little enthusiasm for the future.

“I can’t envision mayoral control coming to Buffalo,” he said, explaining such a consensus was simply never demonstrated in Albany when the idea was considered late in the last legislative session.

And he said he “seriously laments” the departure of Chancellor Emeritus Robert M. Bennett from the Board of Regents after he appeared to lose his base of support in the Assembly for re-appointment earlier this year.

“I wish him well, but I wish he was still here,” Flanagan said.

The new majority leader promised to focus on struggling systems like Buffalo because of their negative impacts on various aspects of life throughout New York. He said he was pro-teacher even if his caucus is often targeted by teachers unions.

But Flanagan also acknowledged that gaining the confidence of New Yorkers may prove a challenge after his predecessor – Sen. Dean G. Skelos – and former Assembly Speaker Sheldon Silver were both indicted earlier this year. Indeed, two sitting senators – Democrat John Sampson and Republican Thomas Libous – both were convicted of crimes in just the past few weeks.

“I believe in transparency and I believe in disclosure,” he said, without delving into the specifics about what level of transparency and disclosure should be required of legislators with outside income that might present conflicts of interest.

But he is refraining – for now anyway – from supporting calls by some Democrats to eliminate all outside income to combat an epidemic of political corruption in the Capitol. He endorses new ethical requirements sought by Gov. Andrew M. Cuomo and passed by the Legislature in recent sessions, but stops short of the concept of a full time legislator.

“I have genuine concerns about saying you have no right to make any money on the outside,” he said. “I want people with diverse backgrounds.

“I believe it is prudent and wise to allow the effect of these laws just enacted to be seen,” he added.

A veteran of 29 years in both the Assembly and Senate at just 54, Flanagan emphasizes the need for a Republican majority in the Senate to balance the Assembly’s overwhelming Democratic majority.

The recent move by an unelected wage board to gradually increase the minimum wage for fast-food workers to $15 per hour demonstrates, he said, “a classic example of executive overreach.”

“There are two legislative bodies that should have been involved in the process,” he complained. “That’s why we have a Legislature. That’s why we have hearings and things like that, because we play a critical role.”

The new leader is traveling the state this summer for get-acquainted meetings like those in Buffalo on Tuesday and a speaking engagement in Chautauqua County later Tuesday evening.

Everywhere he makes the case for a two-party state government.

Otherwise Albany tilts too far toward regulations and taxes, he said, lamenting that this year’s session resulted only in property tax rebates rather than reduction of actual tax rates.

He called Cuomo’s Buffalo Billion program “very effective,” as well as the SUNY 2020 program that attempts to use the state’s higher education system as an economic development catalyst.

“Those investments pay off,” he said.

Flanagan credited the governor with working hard to “put a better face on New York,” from the displays of historical paintings in the Capitol to his agreement to extend a cap on property taxes for four more years.

He expressed concerns about Cuomo’s regional council approach to economic development, but also emphasized the governor will often gain enthusiastic support from his caucus too.

“He promotes Democrats and Democratic policies,” Flanagan said. “But I will be very clear on this: when he does good things for the state, he will have allies in us.”

email: rmccarthy@buffnews.com