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Blair Horner: The Legislature May Be Starting Up

In March, the Legislature granted Governor Cuomo unprecedented power to make laws.  No New York Legislature had ever granted its executive the power to change and make new laws without legislative consent. 

The reason was that the state faced a unique, looming health catastrophe resulting from the COVID-19 pandemic.  All knew that the state had to respond and had to do so quickly in order to react to this unprecedented threat. 

Then, as part of the budget agreement at the end of March, the Legislature granted the governor additional powers, to unilaterally make cuts in the approved budget, again without legislative consent.  The logic behind bestowing that much power on the governor is that executives control the machinery of government that implements the laws and is capable of acting quickly, whereas legislatures are deliberative bodies tasked with making broad policy, not making the trains run on time.

In both circumstances, the Legislature reserved the power to change the executive’s decisions, but only after the fact. 

The budget was passed in early April and then the Legislature vanished.  Despite being scheduled to return to Albany on April 20th, little had been heard of their plans, until last week.

Last week, the Legislative leaders announced that they would hold two joint hearings to review some of the impacts of the pandemic on New Yorkers.  One hearing will evaluate the economic impact of the COVID-19 pandemic on small businesses, including farms, across the state, and whether the federal response has been sufficient.  A second separate hearing is described as examining the disproportionate adverse impacts of COVID-19 on minority communities, which may include disparate impacts on industries, services and the surrounding health care system.

Both, of course, are hearings that need to happen and both review important topics.  But there are other topics that should be examined as well.

For example, as mentioned, the Legislature has granted the governor vast new powers to handle the crisis.  Lawmakers should review how those new powers have been used and whether they need to be continued without change, or modified.

Another topic would be to examine the performance of the state in reacting to the pandemic.  This review should not be about grading the performance of the governor, but more about what can be learned.  Given the speed of the growth of the contagion in New York, many decisions had to be made without complete information – or sufficient time to consider strategies.

The governor has received widespread accolades for his public communications of the magnitude of the crisis, the problems New York faced, and his strategies for responding.  The centralization of authority granted the governor enormous power to reorganize health care delivery and the purchasing of necessary medical equipment.

Unfortunately, it didn’t all go without a hitch.  Decisions on how nursing homes handled vulnerable and sick residents and the awarding of government contracts to unreliable bidders who had no, or little, demonstrated experience have all become topics of media reports.  Lawmakers should look into those – and any other – topics to see what lessons can be learned.

In addition, what should the state do to better prepare itself for future outbreaks or even a possible “second wave” of the coronavirus?  Some things to consider include:

  • Is state funding adequate for water infrastructure?  Has the state prohibited shut-offs of water access?  Washing hands is an important way for individuals to reduce risk from the virus.
  • Is the Attorney General sufficiently empowered to go after those who engage in price gouging?
  • Are voters given adequate access to mail-in absentee ballots, if they wish to protect their own health and reduce the risk to poll workers by voting by mail?
  • And, given that essential workers are most at-risk of the coronavirus itself, and facing reduced vital services if the governor’s budget cuts are enacted, is the state demanding that those with the most resources – and least likely to face the disease itself – contribute more to the state budget to offset those possible cuts?

These reviews should not be a game of “gotcha.”  Unless evidence surfaces of inappropriate actions, lawmakers must assume that the Administration was reacting under incredible pressures as best at it could to handle an unprecedented crisis.  But the legislative branch of government was created as a co-equal partner to the executive and a watchdog over the executive’s day-to-day actions.  Simply handing over power and not holding the executive to account shirks responsibility and erodes the public’s trust. 
The governor has rightly noted that we must use the pandemic to learn and grow.  Much can be learned and it’s the Legislature’s job to identify what went right and what did not.;

Blair Horner is executive director of the New York Public Interest Research Group.

The views expressed by commentators are solely those of the authors.They do not necessarily reflect the views of this station or its management.

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