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Assembly, Senate leaders lay out contrasting agendas for Albany legislative session

ALBANY – The Democratic and Republican leaders of the State Legislature on Wednesday laid out starkly different agendas for the 2016 session, signaling that the coming six months will be a tricky period during an election year.

Assembly Speaker Carl E. Heastie, D-Bronx, said efforts to restore the Capitol’s ethically challenged reputation “will be a priority of this house.”

Democrats also will push for a middle-class income tax cut while continuing to press for higher taxes on wealthy New Yorkers, as well as advancing a system of paid family leave statewide.

Down the Capitol’s hall, Senate Majority Leader John J. Flanagan Jr., R-Huntington, outlined different paths for Republicans: bolstering state aid to public schools, a major infusion of money for crumbling infrastructure and expanded efforts to address an opiate and heroin drug addiction crisis.

Welcome to the first day of the 2016 session, which is scheduled to end June 16.

Heastie, who took over the Assembly leadership after the arrest last year of former Speaker Sheldon Silver, D-Manhattan, on federal corruption charges, called on Flanagan and the Senate to join Democrats in ending a loophole in the campaign finance law that allows limited liability corporations to do an end-run around donation limits.

Heastie also called for creation of “a more fair tax structure,’’ which he did not specifically outline. But he suggested that a tax surcharge on millionaires that would expire next year be changed so that those who can afford “to give a little bit more give a little bit more.”

In an interview before the Senate session began Wednesday, Flanagan sought to draw a line in the sand for the coming budget talks. He said the Senate GOP position is “rock solid” that “we will not have a budget” unless Gov. Andrew M. Cuomo and Heastie commit this year to ending the Gap Elimination Adjustment, a budget-balancing maneuver that critics said gave and then took away state money for public schools.

The Senate also will not go along with a $8.3 billion capital funding plan for the downstate Metropolitan Transportation Authority, Flanagan said, “unless there is a commensurate plan for the rest of the transportation world.”

Flanagan expressed a number of views during an interview with The Buffalo News. Among his thoughts:

• On ethics reforms – The Legislature already has enacted “massive” changes in ethics and campaign laws over the last decade, and New York lawmakers disclose as much about their personal finances as any lawmakers in the country, he said. Flanagan dismissed a ban on outside income for lawmakers and said a full-time Legislature would offer less varied backgrounds of those who serve. He suggested that disclosure – not closing the LLC loophole – is a solution worth exploring.

Asked about the reality that one almost needs to have subpoena power in order to figure out who is behind some LLC donations to New York politicians, Flanagan said, “We will have whatever appropriate discussions that need to take place.”

Cuomo should act on some measures, Flanagan said, noting that the Legislature three years ago approved legislation for a database to collect and make public information on people with business before the state.

“That’s a function of the executive, and they haven’t done it. That alone is a huge thing,” he said.

• On whether Manhattan-based U.S. Attorney Preet Bharara should be invited to Albany to talk about ethics – While that might be “a novel concept,” the more “salient question is whether he’d accept an invitation like that,” Flanagan said.

Asked whether he knew of any legislator under investigation, Flanagan had a brief response: “No.”

• On education – Most changes to testing and teacher-evaluation system based on the Common Core Learning Standards are the jurisdiction of the Board of Regents, Flanagan said.

“Our primary purpose is oversight, but more importantly, proper funding,” he said of the Legislature.

Flanagan did not propose a floor for a state aid increase for the state’s 700 public schools.

• On SUNY – Flanagan, whose son is a senior at the University at Buffalo, said he supports the idea of the “rational” tuition plan that permits SUNY to raise tuition each year based on a college cost inflation index. That program expires this year after five years, and Flanagan said he has been “gratified” to know as a parent what to expect with SUNY tuition levels.

“A rational tuition plan is important, but we also don’t want to give SUNY unfettered discretion to do whatever they want,” he said.

• On politics – Flanagan did not specifically respond when asked about the impact on the Senate if Republicans lose a coming special election to fill the seat left vacant by the expulsion of former Majority Leader Dean G. Skelos, R-Rockville Centre.

“It’s hard for me to answer that question because I don’t have any intention of losing that seat,”’ he said.

Flanagan also dismissed talk of Republicans needing a new power-sharing arrangement with a breakaway group of Senate Democrats in case the GOP loses its razor-thin majority this year. And he expressed no worries if Cuomo acts as the “key Democrat in the state” and endorses Senate Democrats this fall.

The senator signaled an interest by the GOP in the Senate seat held by freshman Democrat Marc C. Panepinto of Buffalo. Talk has increased of Erie County Clerk Christopher L. Jacobs, a Republican, running for that Senate seat.

“Chris Jacobs is an excellent elected official from Western New York, and I’m confident we’ll have a terrific candidate in that seat,” Flanagan said.

Could it be Jacobs?

“Sure,” Flanagan said.