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Legislative Session Winds Down In Albany

The state capitol in Albany
Dave Lucas
The state capitol in Albany

The New York State legislature is wrapping up its business for 2020 at the state capitol this week, in a session that is perhaps defined more by what lawmakers are not doing, than what they have been doing.  

Many of the bills acted on by the Senate and Assembly address the nuts and bolts of government, like renewing sales tax authorization for local governments and clarifying existing laws.

But perhaps the elephant in the room, is the state’s $15 billion budget deficit. Governor Andrew Cuomo has threatened to cut aid to schools local governments, and hospitals, by 20%, if Congress does not agree on a relief package, and Cuomo has already temporarily cut aid to some cities by one fifth.

Senate Majority Leader Andrea Stewart-Cousins, in an interview with public radio and television, says decisions on how to balance the budget have to wait until the details of the federal relief package are known. She says she’s hopeful of aid for the state, because it’s now not just blue states that are suffering, red states like Texas and Florida are hard hit, as well.

“As COVID rages throughout the nation, everybody is being hit one way or another with the incredible expense,” Stewart-Cousins said.

In this year’s budget, the legislature granted Cuomo the ability to unilaterally add or subtract funding, to deal with the fiscal uncertainties caused by the COVID-19 pandemic. Under the rules, the legislature has 10 days to change those decisions, or they become law. Stewart-Cousins says the Senate plans to be involved.

“We expect we’ll be back,” she said.

A number of progressive Democrats in the legislature are pushing for higher taxes on the wealthy, something Governor Cuomo is against, and Senate leadership has not yet endorsed.    

The legislature, in addition to granting new budget powers to the governor, also gave Cuomo broad emergency authority during the pandemic. It has allowed the governor to make decisions like closing down business and schools, and mandating the wearing of masks.    

Some government reform groups have been critical, saying the legislature needs to take back some of its constitutionally granted authority.

Republicans, who are in the minority in both houses, also voiced concerns. Senate GOP Leader Rob Ortt says when the pandemic first hit New York, it made sense to place one person in charge.

“Sometimes you can’t deliberate on every decision,” said Ortt. “But we are long past that point.”

Ortt says his over 300,000 constituents expect him to be more involved in the decision making process.

Ortt says several months later, it feels like the rules of democracy are being subverted.

“Democrats are not providing any oversight of the governor’s decisions throughout this pandemic,” Ortt said. “And that is a real problem that I think should concern all New Yorkers.”

Ortt accused Democrats of being political by not acting to curb the Democratic governor.

“I can guarantee you if it was a Republican governor they wouldn’t be fine with it,” Ortt said. 

A spokesman for the Senate Democrats, Gary Ginsberg, replies that “as much as the Republicans want to pretend the pandemic is over, it is not.” Ginsberg, in a statement, says the state needs “a centralized approach."

Senate Leader Stewart-Cousins says, for now, Democrats are OK with the governor retaining the ability to make quick decisions, and she does not think lawmakers gave the governor too much authority.

“I think New Yorkers agree that the governor has handled the powers extraordinarily well,” said Stewart-Cousins. “We are not done with this pandemic.”

The governor’s emergency powers expire in April of 2021, the legislature can act to renew them, then, if they think they are still needed.  

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