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NY Senate GOP leader unfazed by Democratic takeover talk

ALBANY – Democrats are pledging to reunite as early as April to oust control of the state Senate from Republicans, who have dominated the chamber for most of the past 100 years.

To the current Senate Republican majority leader, John Flanagan, a seemingly singular response is offered: Yawn.

“I’m confident we’re going to continue to be in a good position,’’ Flanagan said despite the “framework” deal cut several weeks ago by Democrats to end years of internecine feuding as early as this coming spring to take over the 63-member Senate.

“I’m confident, whether it’s January or May, we will be in charge of the Senate,’’ Flanagan told The Buffalo News in his first interview since Democrats — including Gov. Andrew M. Cuomo — last month claimed they reached a consensus to rejoin splintered Senate Democratic factions.

The GOP leader parried question after question about how worried the Republican conference is that they face a loss of power sometime next year. It is the Senate that serves as the sole point of power for Republicans in Albany, as Democrats command the Assembly and hold all four statewide offices.

Is Flanagan really this confident or are his claims merely being expressed for consumption by voters, campaign donors and even his own GOP conference members?

Flanagan, for starters, believes the GOP maintain strong ties with the Senate’s Independent Democratic Conference. That’s the group of eight breakaway Democrats, led by Bronx’s Sen. Jeff Klein, which has for several years enjoyed a power-sharing arrangement with Flanagan’s Republicans. With Sen. Simcha Felder, a Brooklyn Democrat who conferences with the Republicans, the GOP hold has been further cemented.

There’s some history for that confidence. In 2014, the IDC announced mid-year it would be reuniting with mainline Democrats. It never happened.

But to listen to Cuomo and Democrats, this year is different. Under immense pressure from the left flank of the Democratic Party’s base, Cuomo has stepped up his efforts, at least publicly, to try to broker a peace among warring Senate Democrats.

To people unaccustomed to how logic plays out at the Capitol, it would seem Flanagan and Klein must be at war. Klein has now openly signaled a willingness to abandon the GOP alliance. If true, there would be little reason for Flanagan and Klein to get along.

That’s not reality. “Oh God yeah,’’ Flanagan said when asked if he is still talking to Klein. “He and I talk regularly and he and I meet regularly." He called Klein “a true pro.’’ In fact, before Klein released a public statement in November about the push to reunite Senate Democrats, Klein shared with Flanagan what he was going to say, sources said at the time.

The Democrats chances of grabbing the Senate majority also hinges on Democrats’ ability to win two seats — one a sure bet in the Bronx and the other a bit more iffy in Westchester County — that become vacant Jan. 1 when their occupants take other jobs. Cuomo has not said when he will call a special election to fill those seats. He has hinted at April so as not to interfere with the March budget talks.

Democrats are confident the demographics will help them in the 2018 elections, not to mention the drag Senate Republicans will see from having an unpopular Republican in the White House.

Flanagan stressed that while he believes the GOP will remain in control of the Senate, it will do so “not in a dictatorial fashion but in a collegial way because we know how to work with people.’’

As for the GOP alliance with Klein and the IDC, Flanagan said: “I expect it to last a lot longer than through the end of session.’’

State Sen. John Flanagan talks at a news conference on Dec. 12, 2013. (Newsday/John Paraskevas)

All eyes on Westchester

Both sides are already gearing up for what will be a nasty and expensive race sometime next year to fill the Senate seat now held by Sen. George Latimer, a Democrat who is becoming the Westchester County executive. Flanagan would only say talks are underway with several Republicans to run.

Many Democrats want Cuomo to call the special election as soon as he can — in March.

“But between now and the end of March, I think everyone is going to have a maniacal focus on the budget," Flanagan said. "It would be prudent to have those elections after the budget. They could even be in November.''

The Republicans believe they have another weapon: the so-called “Rule of 38.’’ That’s the rule stating that it takes 38 of 63 senators to change the Senate’s rules mid-session. Democrats dismiss the importance of the rule, though Republicans say they are prepared to invoke it if it comes to that to stay in power at least through 2018.

Flanagan, ever the optimist, noted Albany's two decade history of predictions of the Senate GOP's power demise. “We’ve proven time and time again that we rise when people don’t expect us to,’’ he said.

Working with Cuomo

While Flanagan and Cuomo have, by their own accounts, worked well together on state budgets, can that continue? If the Democrats are openly gunning to take out Flanagan and his Republicans, why would the GOP cooperate when dealing with Cuomo and Assembly Democrats during the budget talks?

The budget is already strained, and faces a growing deficit of more than $4 billion. Flanagan said the Republican-backed federal tax plan working its way through Washington with new limits on state and local tax deductions will especially harm New York.

Flanagan would only say that he continues to have a “good” and “professional” relationship with Cuomo.

Flanagan said he’s happy to become “more aggressive and outspoken” if that’s what it takes in 2018. “We’re not going to deviate from our agenda,’’ he said.

The upcoming state budget

Flanagan said the GOP’s priorities in 2018 will include cutting, not just freezing, some taxes. Of talk by some Democrats about the need for higher taxes to help bring down the deficit, Flanagan dismisses that as “the dumbest thing we can possibly do.’’ Flanagan said his GOP colleagues will press for everything from lower energy costs for small businesses to making permanent the state’s 2 percent property tax cap law.

Flanagan said the Senate will press to reduce regulatory burdens on nonprofit and for-profit entities. He also signaled a possible thorny area for examination: Cuomo’s economic development programs. He said the Senate will “look at every economic development program in place and see if it’s working or not.’’ That will include Cuomo’s regional council approach, which on Wednesday saw another round of more than $755 million handed out in what critics call a “Hunger Games” competition by 10 regions in the state. Flanagan called such a process “counterproductive.’’

Flanagan said the Senate will also advance efforts to give more tools to law enforcement to help confront terrorist and gang-related violence.

Flanagan said the state deficit is a challenge, but that New York will also benefit from Wall Street’s rising performance over the past year.

But Flanagan signaled austerity times. The Board of Regents this week called for a $1.6 billion state aid increase in overall education funding. “No,’’ Flanagan said. “It’s unrealistic and it’s divorced from reality.’’

“The education budget has grown at a higher rate than any sector of the New York State budget. I completely agree on the need for investing in education. But those numbers are aspirational,’’ he said of the Regents plan.

Flanagan did bristle at one topic: legislative pay raises. Cuomo recently said lawmakers can forget any chance of getting a pay raise — something they’ve not had since 1999 — if the budget is late in 2018.

What confuses Flanagan is that no one, beyond apparently Cuomo, is talking pay raises.

“I don’t know where the heck that comes from,’’ he said.

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