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Cuomo’s COVID-19 Emergency Powers Questioned

New York Governor Andrew Cuomo speaking March 25, 2020.

A coalition of government reform groups say the New York state legislature should consider limiting some of Governor Andrew Cuomo’s emergency powers gained during the pandemic, and return, at least remotely, to meeting in session to set policy for New York.

In early March, as the coronavirus rapidly gained ground in New York, the legislature granted Governor Cuomo special emergency powers to temporarily suspend laws or create new ones to fight the pandemic. 

Since then, the governor has issued over 40 executive orders that changed over 250 laws. They range from whether or not nursing homes have to readmit residents who were in the hospital with COVID-19, to closing schools and businesses and requiring that everyone wear face masks in public.

Cuomo has been widely praised for his handling of the crisis. But now that the spread of the virus is easing in New York, reform groups including Common Cause, the League of Women Voters and Reinvent Albany have written to the legislative leaders, asking them to take back some of the powers that they gave to the governor.

Blair Horner, with the New York Public Interest Research Group , which is also part of the coalition, says re-involving the legislature in the decision making process is in the best interests of democracy. He spoke via Skype.

“In March the governor and the legislative leaders agreed to new powers for the governor, basically to enact laws unilaterally, with a veto power for the legislature,” Horner said. “As the epidemic has eased, we think the legislature should get back to work. Hold committee meetings, move bills.”

Horner says in a normal year, the legislature acts on 800 to 900 bills. So far this year, just 150 have passed.

At the very least, the groups say the legislature should reassert its governing powers to vote on whether any of the executive orders should be extended when they come up for renewal. 

Some state lawmakers including Republican legislative leaders, as well as some liberal Democrats, have also called for reigning in some of the governors’ powers.

Cuomo, asked about the letter Monday in a coronavirus briefing, condemned the idea, saying that the idea is “stupid” and that with the virus spiking alarmingly in other states, “there is no thinking American who does not believe that this is a state of emergency.”

“And stupid is a strong word, but sometimes it’s just stupid,” said Cuomo who said without the executive orders no one would have to wear masks or socially distance, and movie theaters and Broadway, closed for safety reasons, would reopen and hospitals could reject people sick with COVID-19 who can’t afford to pay.

The governor says the legislature still retains the authority to pass a law to override any executive order that he issues.

“Everything that we have done that has worked goes way immediately, because they were all done by executive order,” Cuomo said.

Cuomo’s Chief of Staff Melissa DeRosa says the successful management of the virus during the past few months would not have been possible if the governor were not empowered to quickly implement changes. She called the proposal “ignorant” and accused lawmakers who back the idea of being “completely political.”

Horner, with NYPIRG, says the groups are not criticizing the governor’s handling of the crisis, or saying that the pandemic is over, but they are advocating a return to the democratic principles found in the nation’s and the state’s constitutions.

“What we’re arguing for is a return to the American form of democracy, a system of checks and balances,” Horner said. “If the governor doesn’t like it, of course he’s entitled to his opinion, but that’s a debate he’d have to have with Thomas Jefferson, not with us”.

Cuomo could not give a date for when he thinks it’s appropriate that the emergency powers end, saying, “When COVID ends, the emergency ends.”

A source in the legislature confirms that the Senate and Assembly are holding private party conferences Wednesday and might reconvene in session the week of July 20. No agenda has yet been set.