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Cuomo uses his powers to act without the legislature

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In the legislative session that recently ended, Governor Cuomo saw the state legislature reject a number of agenda items he’d been pushing. The governor, perhaps taking a cue from President Obama, has used his executive powers to advance some of the proposals anyway.

Governor Cuomo was stymied by Republicans, who lead the State Senate, on a couple of key items.

First, he wanted to raise the state’s minimum wage farther and faster than a plan agreed to two years ago that will bring the wage to $9.00 at the end of this year. The GOP opposed the plan, so Cuomo used his authority to appoint a wage board. It is now looking at whether to raise the minimum wage for fast food workers to $15 an hour, and could decide as early as next week.

The governor also sought a law to create a special monitor  to step in and investigate whenever an unarmed civilian is killed in an encounter with police. Senators rejected that proposal, so Cuomo appointed the state’s Attorney General, Eric Schneiderman as a special prosecutor in the cases. The move won Cuomo praise and a slot at the annual NAACP meeting in Philadelphia.

“I believe this can work nationwide,” Cuomo told the enthusiastic group. “It’s a step that can restore confidence and trust.”  

Cuomo had also sought to raise the age for younger people convicted of felonies sent to state prison from 16 to 18 years old. When the Senate GOP refused, he ordered the change himself. Cuomo also sought to have 16 and 17 year olds sent to family court instead of criminal court, but he does not have the power to make those changes by himself.

It was not just Republicans who refused to go along with some of the governor’s plans. Assembly Democrats did not like a GOP Senate proposal to roll back portions of New York’s gun control laws, enacted early in 2013, shortly after the Newtown, Connecticut school shooting. Democrats in the Assembly did not want to roll back any provisions of the gun laws, even though Republicans were asking for some changes.

Cuomo acted partially on his own to make changes. Late on a summer Friday, the governor’s top aid signed a memo with the leader of the Senate Republicans that was at first interpreted as saying that a planned state database for ammunition sales would not go forward after all. Cuomo later said that was not the case, and the memo merely clarifies the fact that the database is not yet ready because there’s technical issues with setting it up.

“We’re not going to put the database in place before it’s time,” Cuomo said.

Assembly Democrats, who were not told of the memo until it was publicized, were furious.

And they aren’t the only ones to be displeased with the governor’s unilateral actions. The state’s Business Council has accused Cuomo of overreaching by using an appointed wage board to set new minimum wages for some sectors of the economy.  The state’s District Attorney’s association has threatened legal action over the appointment of the Attorney General as special prosecutor, and Senate Democrats have contemplated suing over the gun control law changes.

Steve Greenberg, a spokesman for Siena College polls and a political analyst, says it's likely most New Yorkers did not even notice the memo of understanding between the Governor and the Senate on walking back part of the gun law.

“I’m not sure voters saw it, since it happened over a weekend in July,” Greenberg said. “I’m not sure they fully understand it.”

And he says that benefits Cuomo, because most New Yorkers consistently in the polls back the gun control laws, though a minority of state residents is strongly opposed to them.

As for the other actions, raising the minimum wage and appointing a special prosecutor when there are questions about unfairness in the criminal justice system- Greenberg says both of those changes are desired by the majority of New Yorkers, and they don’t really care how it comes about.

“I don’t think voters pay attention to process,” Greenberg said. “They pay attention to results.”

Cuomo’s decision to act alone to advance issues supported by most people in the state  could help him shore up some needed support. The most recent Siena poll shows Cuomo steadily losing ground, with his favorable rating at below 50%, and his job approval rating at just 39%.

Karen DeWitt is Capitol Bureau Chief for New York State Public Radio, a network of 10 public radio stations in New York State. She has covered state government and politics for the network since 1990.