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Blair Horner: 2020 Heads For The Exit

As 2020 grinds toward an end, it is a good time to review the profound changes that have occurred over the past 52 weeks. 

It’s impossible to ignore the impacts of the COVID-19 pandemic.  As the virus gathered steam last winter, New York’s elected officials took unprecedented steps to respond.  The Legislature ceded much of its constitutional authority to the governor.  Despite going into the new fiscal year with a multi-billion-dollar deficit, the Legislature essentially approved Governor Cuomo’s proposed budget and gave him additional powers to make changes that the governor deemed necessary to keep the state financially solvent through the remainder of the fiscal year (which ends on March 31st). 

This budgetary power bolstered the governor’s executive authority and has allowed his office to freeze billions of dollars in budget items that had been approved in early April.  In effect, the Administration has made its own budgetary decisions to keep the state’s books balanced.

The Legislature granted the governor additional non-budgetary powers as well.  Under the American form of democracy, a system of checks-and-balances is in place to ensure that no one branch of government can fully dominate the others.  Typically, the Executive can advance legislation of its own, but it must be approved by the Legislature before it can become law.  There are loopholes in this relationship, one of which allows the governor to issue executive orders that can have the force of law, but do not extend beyond the governor’s term.

As part of the COVID-19 response, the Legislature granted the governor new power to unilaterally enact new laws.  This new power was tied to his existing executive powers and is subject to the Legislature’s override, but so far none of the governor’s decisions have been overruled.  This authorization expires in April of 2021.

These new powers were, of course, granted in order to allow the governor to move quickly to respond to the unprecedented public health threat posed by the pandemic.  But these are powers that previous governors could not have dreamed of having.  And those changes have fundamentally altered the relationship between the two branches of government, at least temporarily.

Another huge change came in New York this year:  2020 was the first election that saw large-scale use of mail in ballots.  The changes in the election process – and the new conveniences to voters – are likely to become permanent.  It is hard to believe that the public will go back to the days of schlepping to polling places if it is inconvenient to do so. 

The changes in voting in 2020 underscored the need to overhaul elections administration in New York and to add adequate resources.  Long lines during early voting were widespread across New York and the result of inadequate funding by the Administration as well as the lack of bureaucratic competence. 

Not surprisingly, the issue of health care rose to the top of public concern.  Despite the callous efforts by the outgoing Trump Administration to take away health care from Americans during a pandemic, Americans saw just how important access to health insurance can be.  Of course, for the uninsured it has long been clear that universal health care is a basic human right.  But that view picked up steam as millions of Americans were laid off during the pandemic-fueled economic downturn and in many cases lost their health coverage.  It has become quite clear that universal health coverage is a necessity. 

2020 was, once again, one of the hottest years in human history and the trend has the planet getting even hotter.  The heating of the planet as the result of human activities did not stop during the pandemic.  The planet is heating up, storms are more severe, huge swaths of the planet is getting drier and more prone to fires.  The fires in Australia, California and the Amazon clearly show that climate-changing global catastrophes are here now and getting worse.

Hopefully, new vaccines and changes in human behavior can alter the course of the pandemic, ultimately leading to the end of the threat.  But its impact on our democracy and our health care system will last for years to come.  These impacts will be clearer next year and all of us should hope that those changes bolster our self-governance and improve the nation’s health.

The incoming Biden Administration has promised to take the global warming threat seriously and that crisis can be mitigated if the nation – and the world – moves to an economy powered by wind, solar and more energy efficiency.

As 2020 thankfully comes to an end, we all look ahead with optimism for the new year.  This year’s optimism hinges on the medical breakthroughs that have led to new vaccines to combat the pandemic.  But lingering threats remain – to our democracy, to our health, and to the environment.  Let’s hope that our political leadership rises to meet these challenges.

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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