Flanagan questions free tuition but touts points of agreement with Cuomo

State Senate Majority Leader John Flanagan pushed back against some of Gov. Andrew Cuomo’s newly unveiled proposals in a speech Friday morning, but he predicted that the tension between the governor and the state Legislature won’t derail the state budget process. 

Flanagan questioned Cuomo’s marquee plan to offer free tuition to public colleges in the state for students in families making less than $125,000 a year. The Senate leader compared the $163 million proposal, the first that Cuomo rolled out for his 2017 agenda, to sweets like ice cream and lemonade.

“It’s laudable in many different ways,” Flanagan said, “but when you take that, and you take all the other things that have come out and we haven’t even seen the budget in its entirety, my biggest concern is not the quality or the value of these programs, but how do we pay for it?”

A spokesman for the Senate Republicans initially told The New York Times that the proposal “appears to move us in a positive direction," although Republican state Sen. Joe Griffo told Politico that he wanted to know more about how the state could afford it and how to award student aid fairly.

Flanagan made the comments during a speech to a well-heeled crowd at the Long Island Association’s State of the Region breakfast at the Crest Hollow Country Club in Woodbury, following shorter reports from Lt. Gov. Kathy Hochul, Brookhaven Town Supervisor Ed Romaine and Port Authority Executive Director Pat Foye, who discussed the ongoing and planned redevelopment of New York City’s major airports. About ten state legislators were in attendance – more than attended Cuomo’s six State of the State addresses in total, since many legislators boycotted Cuomo to protest the fact that they were held outside the capital and on session days, in a break with tradition.

Cuomo’s non-traditional State of the States and the decision of a Cuomo-appointed pay raise commission not to recommend a raise for state lawmakers are just a couple of the issues causing tension between the governor and the legislature as the new session begins – a fact Flanagan did not shy away from.

“You’ve read about the last six weeks, things that have gone on, what’s going on amongst the Assembly and the Senate and the governor,” he said. “Elections are over and people expect us to govern and people expect us to lead. I have every confidence that we will pass an on-time budget.”

Flanagan added that the budget process will get “testy” and “cantankerous” but that his conference will act responsibly.

He also said there were areas of agreement between himself and Cuomo.

“It’s fascinating for me to hear some of the comments from the governor and from the lieutenant governor, because I think to a degree they took our notebook we’ve had for a couple of years,” Flanagan said. In particular, he singled out property taxes, which Cuomo pledged to lower by consolidating local government services, and sewers, which Cuomo pledged $40 million to build more of in Flanagan’s district.

Flanagan previewed several other debates that will be happening in Albany this year, including issues that were raised in the 2016 presidential election. He spoke against raising or even extending the so-called millionaire’s tax, which Cuomo has said he is open to renewing if the state needs a revenue boost. Flanagan also called for a “cost-benefit analysis of every existing regulation in the state of New York,” saying residents and businesses are being regulated to death. He again intends to propose legislation limiting how much the state budget can increase each year, and he called for a property tax cap for New York City, which Mayor Bill de Blasio opposes.

It was a low-key speech delivered without a script or fanfare – a far cry from Cuomo’s State of the States, which opened with prayers and the national anthem and featured highly-produced slide shows.

The appearance comes on the heels of recent reports that Flanagan has been considering a run for governor in 2018. But he told reporters after the event that, although he was flattered he name is being mentioned, he was not discussing or even thinking about a run right now.

“I just got re-elected as leader,” he said. “We have a budget coming out. We have so many important things to work on.”