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State Democratic leaders agree on legislation to repeal Cuomo's emergency powers

file photo/Office of the Governor

Two prominent Democrats within the New York State Legislature announced late Tuesday afternoon that legislation was expected to pass that would pull back emergency powers granted to Gov. Andrew Cuomo at the onset of the COVID pandemic. The state Senate's minority leader, meanwhile, called the legislation a "bogus backroom" deal.

The measure comes as Cuomo is embroiled in two scandals: one over his nursing home policies during the health crisis and another over accusations that he sexually harassed former staffers.

Under the bill announced Tuesday afternoon, current directives pertaining to preserving public health will be allowed to continue. Senate Majority Leader Andrea Stewart-Cousins and Assembly Speaker Carl Heastie jointly announced the pending legislation.

“I think everyone understands where we were back in March and where we are now," said Stewart-Cousins in a prepared statement. "We certainly see the need for a quick response but also want to move toward a system of increased oversight and review. The public deserves to have checks and balances. Our proposal would create a system with increased input while at the same time ensuring New Yorkers continue to be protected.”

State lawmakers granted Cuomo emergency powers at the start of the pandemic to allow quicker, more flexible decision making as COVID cases and hospitalizations increased. They have included the power to shut down and open up businesses and schools, and determine who gets vaccines.

But critics questioned the continuation of those emergency powers, insisting Cuomo was extending beyond the intention of those powers at the expense of checks and balances. A report by the state’s attorney general also found the governor and his aides undercounted the number of nursing home deaths from the disease and withheld those numbers for months, leading Democrats in the Senate and Assembly to call for more oversight.

Pending passage of the newly announced bill -- expected as soon as Monday -- Cuomo's extra powers will remain in effect until April 30. While directives will remain in place, they can be adjusted to revise the number of businesses or individuals affected by a certain executive order.

The governor would have to go through a process that includes notifying relevant Assembly and Senate chairs of his decisions, as well as the legislative leaders. All new directives would have to be posted on a website with health and safety reasons to justify why the decisions were made. Comments from lawmakers and local government leaders affected by the decisions would also be included.

The measure also gives the Legislature the power to repeal a declared state of emergency by a joint resolution of both houses.

In statements, Assembly Speaker Carl Heastie and Senate Leader Andrea Stewart-Cousins did not mention the controversies, but they said it’s time to return to a more regular order of government with the Legislature resuming oversight of the governor’s decisions.

“All current suspensions and directives will be posted on the website of the governor in a searchable format, and include details on such suspensions and directives, including the public health and safety reasons any directives were extended or modified," said Stewart-Cousins and Heastie in a joint announcement. "Every 30 days after, the website will be updated to include responses to written comments or information requests from relevant committee chairs or municipal government entities.

“The legislation will also allow the Legislature to repeal a declared State of Emergency by joint resolution, and will keep disease outbreaks in the definition of disaster situations that can be subject to a state of emergency," they continued.

"A year into the pandemic, and as New Yorkers receive the vaccine, the temporary emergency powers have served their purpose – it is time for them to be repealed,” said Heastie in a prepared statement. "These temporary emergency powers were granted as New York was devastated by a virus we knew nothing about. Now it is time for our government to return to regular order."

Republicans in the Legislature, who were the first to back stripping Cuomo of the emergency powers, said the agreement is too little, too late. State Sen. Rob Ortt, a Niagara County Republican, issued his own statement criticizing the Democrats’ plan:

“Senate Republicans advanced the first proposal to end Governor Cuomo’s emergency powers 279 days ago. Today, panicking Democrats were finally forced into a corner after the Governor’s coverup of 15,000 nursing home deaths, the decimation of thousands of New Yorkers, and multiple scandals and investigations being led by both the FBI and the State Attorney General surrounding the Governor’s office.

“Our Conference has listened to New Yorkers’ pleas to strip the Governor’s powers. We advanced an amendment to do so 19 times. Each and every one of those times, not a single Senate Democrat stood with us in this effort to restore checks and balances to Albany. Today, as they announced this bogus backroom deal, they turned their back on New Yorkers yet again, voting no on our amendment to remove the executive powers.

“So while Senate Democrats finally seem to be in agreement that the ‘temporary emergency powers have served their purpose,’ my question is, what took so long?”

Cuomo and his office did not immediately comment.

Karen DeWitt is Capitol Bureau Chief for New York State Public Radio, a network of 10 public radio stations in New York State. WBFO listeners are accustomed to hearing DeWitt’s insightful coverage throughout the day, including expanded reports on Morning Edition.
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