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Cuomo accomplished much in 2015 without the legislature


Gov. Andrew Cuomo recently announced plans for mass pardons of young people who commit non-violent crimes. It’s the latest in a string of actions Cuomo has taken in the past year in an attempt to get around opposition from some factions in the state legislature and to further some progressive issues.

The New York State Senate is controlled by Republicans, and Cuomo has cordial relations with the GOP senators. But they have been reluctant to approve a number of the governor’s items, including further raising the minimum wage, and upping the age for when juvenile offenders are put into state prisons.

Cuomo went around the legislature and created a wage board to examine the wages of fast food workers. He’s allowed to do that, under the powers given to the governor. But Cuomo went beyond that when the wage board declared that fast food workers will be paid $15 an hour by 2018 in New York City, and 2021 in the rest of the state.  He announced the decision to cheering union members.

“Every working man and woman in the state of New York deserves $15 as a minimum wage!” Cuomo shouted to supporters.

When Senate Republicans balked at raising the age for teenagers accused of serious crimes to be sent to state prison from 16 to 18, Cuomo issued an executive order to remove 16- and 17-year-olds from the jails and place them in youth detention instead. He was unable, by himself, though, to stop 16- and 17-year olds from facing the adult court system.

The governor also issued executive orders to raise the minimum wage for state workers. He appointed Attorney General Eric Schneiderman as a special prosecutor for cases where a police encounter ends with the death of a civilian. And he used the existing Human Rights Law to add new rules to ban harassment and discrimination against transgendered New Yorkers in housing, employment, bank loans and lines of credit .

“Our law covers it all,” Cuomo told enthusiastic gay and lesbian advocates at a dinner in October.

And, on December 21, Cuomo issued a mass pardon of 16- and 17-year-olds convicted of non-violent crimes, saying it would erase a black mark against them when they seek jobs.

Senate Leader John Flanagan has not been happy with the governor’s wage board decision or his other unilateral actions.

“I’ve been very clear that I think the fast food wage board was executive overreach,” Flanagan said. “We should have hearings, this should be vetted. There are a lot of issues that tie into this.”

GOP Senators did help Cuomo initially with progressive issues earlier in his term. Four voted with Democrats to enact same sex marriage in 2011. All of the senators eventually lost their seats. They also provided votes for stiffer gun control measures. But they received political blow back, and since then have been reluctant to vote for issues where there’s disagreement with their conservative base.

Cuomo’s recent actions could help him shore up his left leaning Democratic base of voters. The governor was challenged in a primary when he ran for reelection in 2014, and his opponent, Zephyr Teachout, who ran to the left of Cuomo, won several upstate counties. She ultimately lost the race.

All of the governor’s recent actions have not translated into more favorable ratings from New Yorkers, though. Polls have found the governor’s job approval hovering for months now at around 40 percent, with 60 percent saying he’s not doing a good job in office, says Siena spokesman Steve Greenberg.

“Voters are hearing what the governor says,” Greenberg said. “But they’re not changing their opinion.

Greenberg says New York voters seem “locked in” at the moment, until Cuomo makes a dramatic gesture that they either “love or hate.”   

There is one thing Cuomo will need the legislature for in the New Year. And that is to agree with his ideas to help curb corruption in the legislature.

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.