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NY Senate Poised To Curb Cuomo's Pandemic Emergency Powers

New York Governor Andrew Cuomo holds a briefing July 1, 2020.
New York Governor Andrew Cuomo holds a briefing July 1, 2020.

The New York State Senate is poised to strip Governor Andrew Cuomo of some emergency pandemic powers and create an oversight commission to review the decisions the governor makes. There’s growing support for the moves as the Democrat has said that he was wrong to withhold for months the true number of deaths from COVID-19 at the state’s nursing homes. There are also reports of two federal probes into the state’s handling of nursing homes during the pandemic.The legislature gave Cuomo the powers nearly a year ago, in early March 2020. But now, many lawmakers say, it’s time to end them. 

Senator Alessandra Biaggi is the sponsor of a bill that would rescind the special authority granted to Cuomo. The Democrat says while it made sense to have one person making quick decisions in the chaotic early days of the pandemic, it’s outlived its usefulness. She says the long suppression of the nursing home data shows why it’s not always smart to have one branch of government controlling all the decisions.

“There was just a lack of transparency, a lack of willingness to be accountable to the public, and frankly a lack of caring about having honest data and metrics,” said Biaggi. “If that is the way in which someone is going to use excess power, that is not acceptable, because it’s not in the public’s interest.”

Biaggi says the governor would still hold more limited special powers that are permitted during a declared state of emergency. But they are far less sweeping than the authority Cuomo now has, which includes the ability to suspend any law.

Biaggi’s measure has the backing of more than a dozen progressive-leaning Democrats in the Senate, as well as all 20 Republicans, who are in the minority party there.

Governor Cuomo defended his use of the emergency powers during a coronavirus briefing on Feb. 15. He says the legislature has always had the authority to overturn any one of his executive orders.

“The legislature can reverse any action that I take,” Cuomo said. “Just by passing, 50 percent in the Senate and the Assembly. They have never reversed a single action.”

Cuomo says he’s had to implement public health decisions that cannot be made by individual localities.

Democratic Senate Leader Andrea Stewart-Cousins, is trying to work out a compromise measure. It would allow Cuomo to keep the powers while the pandemic continues, but a 10-member commission appointed by the legislature would have oversight over his decisions, and 72 hours to stop them. Stewart-Cousins says her concerns and those of many other lawmakers go beyond the nursing home controversy.  She says lawmakers are frustrated when they asked by constituents to explain rules on everything from school closures to color-coded restricted zones, and they don’t have the answers.   

“All of the issues that are impacting our communities, people are asking us for answers, ‘why is it an orange zone and not a red zone?’” Stewart-Cousins said, in an interview with public radio. “Without the appropriate answers it’s impossible to be the kind of representative you need to be, especially during these critical times.”

Democrats in the state Assembly have not committed to taking back the governor’s powers. The sponsor of the bill there, Ron Kim, has said he was threatened by Cuomo, and told his career would be destroyed if he did not stop his criticisms of the governor’s nursing home policies. A spokesman for Cuomo denies that. Democratic Speaker Carl Heastie has remained neutral in the dispute between Cuomo and Kim, and his spokesman, Mike Whyland, says in a statement that Democrats will meet in the coming days to discuss their options on what do about the governor’s powers.    

Republican State Party Chair Nick Langworthy says while he’s glad that Democrats are increasingly supportive of rescinding the governor’s emergency authority, it’s too little, too late.

“These powers would sunset at the end of April anyway,” Langworthy said. “That’s a scapegoat, an easy way out.” 

Langworthy is calling for the governor to resign or be impeached.

Republicans in the state Assembly are proposing that an impeachment commission be formed, but so far no Democrats are backing that idea.

Karen DeWitt is Capitol Bureau chief for New York State Public Radio, a network of public radio stations in New York state. She has covered state government and politics for the network since 1990.
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