On March 3, with the threat of COVID-19 looming over New York, state lawmakers passed a $40 million coronavirus relief bill. Coupled with the aid, the fine print enabled a massive expansion of Governor Andrew Cuomo’s executive powers, allowing him to “suspend [specific provisions of] any statute, local law, ordinance, or orders, rules or regulations, of any agency” with the stroke of his pen.
A month later, facing a massive multi-billion dollar budget shortfall as hundreds of New Yorkers died every day from the virus, the state legislature enacted a budget that allowed the governor similar expansive powers, to slash funds as he saw fit, without further consultation.
In the seven months since, Cuomo has acted unilaterally to withhold around $2.2 billion in allocated funds, including nearly 20% of funds for the City University of New York. He’s also signed more than 70 executive orders, three times more than he signed last year. Some lawmakers of both parties think it’s time to revisit Cuomo’s absolute authority.
“It’s not actually about party, it’s about excess power,” said Bronx State Senator Alessandra Biaggi, a Democrat. “[The governor] has accumulated an outsized level of power over the course of his reign and during this pandemic, that has threatened the co-equal branches of our government.”
Republican State Senator Joseph Griffo, the Deputy Minority Leader, agreed.
“We need to have co-equal branches of government re-established here. You can’t just cede all your power to one branch,” he said. “I don’t believe this is partisan in any way. At this point, I think it’s now the branches of government beginning to say, ‘Hey wait a minute.’”
Both state senators point to Cuomo’s policy on nursing homes, during the course of the pandemic, that showed the fatal consequences of unilateral unchecked executive action.
First, Cuomo signed an executive order, requiring nursing homes take on COVID-19 positive patients to alleviate pressure on overcrowded hospitals, but didn’t provide them with additional staffing support, testing, or personal protective gear, which allowed the virus to spread unchecked throughout countless downstate facilities. (Cuomo’s office disputes this timeline, and the governor has insisted that nursing home deaths in the state have been “politicized” by Republicans and conservative media.)
While more than 6,600 New Yorkers died inside long-term care facilities, the true death toll remains unknown since the state has still not provided the number of residents who were sent to hospitals and died there, rather than those who stayed inside a nursing home.
Susan Lerner, the executive director of the good government group Common Cause New York, sees the Governor’s current handling of the budget crisis, withholding funds as he sees fit, rather than enacting cuts that are approved by multiple parties, as problematic.
“This is a very poor way in which to arrange a budget,” Lerner said. “Obviously there are significant budgetary shortfalls. But how these decisions are being made to underfund healthcare, to underfund education, completely opaque.”
The most recent state report on the budget shows $2.2 billion in withheld funds from various agencies, including $440 million for higher education, $325 million for transportation, $324 million for education and $279 million for health care, $179 million for housing and human services.
“Nobody is suggesting the health emergency has passed, but our system is one that does not give the executive unlimited, absolute power,” Lerner said.
Richard Azzopardi, a spokesman for the governor, balked at the potential revocation of Cuomo’s emergency powers, which don’t expire until next April.
“We’re moving heaven and earth to further stop the spread of this pandemic and prevent a second wave any way we can,” he said. “To their credit, the legislature did the right thing when granting these powers [without which] the steps to shut down and reopen New York could not have happened, and this state would not have gone from having the highest infection rate in the nation to one of the lowest.”
This week the governor’s executive powers came under bi-partisan scrutiny again, with his latest executive order threatening to withhold funding from schools that disobeyed another executive order to close if they were in red zones, and from local governments that failed to enforce it.
“Thanks to a Democrat-controlled Legislature which refuses to rescind Governor Cuomo’s unbridled, unchecked powers, today the Governor threatened to defund local governments that don’t follow his mandates,” Republican Senate Minority Leader Robert Ortt wrote in a statement. “It’s time to rescind the Governor’s broad emergency powers.”
Democratic State Senator Michael Gianaris drew comparisons between Governor Cuomo and President Donald Trump.
Is he going to label them anarchist jurisdictions too?
If this threat is implemented and desperately needed funds are withheld, the legislature should reconvene immediately and revoke emergency powers. https://t.co/2DhzjhwWJ7
— Sen. Mike Gianaris (@SenGianaris) October 14, 2020
Griff said while there’s growing “frustration and exasperation” from lawmakers of both parties, it’s up to Senate Majority Leader Andrea Stewart-Cousins and Assembly Speaker Carl Heastie—both Democrats—to call members back to consider a vote to revoke the Governor’s emergency powers.
“The question is whether the leaders will actually listen to the members,” he said. “They have the ability and the power.”
The offices of Stewart-Cousins and Heastie didn’t return repeated requests for comment.