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Legislature agrees to strip Cuomo of emergency pandemic powers

Jim Bowen

New York state legislative leaders have announced agreement on a bill to curb Gov. Andrew Cuomo’s emergency powers during the COVID-19 pandemic.

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.

Nearly one year ago, as the first cases of COVID-19 were discovered in New York, the State Legislature granted Cuomo extraordinary powers that go beyond the scope of what a governor already holds under state law in times of emergency. They have included the power to shut down and open up businesses and schools, and determine who gets vaccines.

But after a report by the state’s attorney general found the governor and his aides undercounted the number of nursing home deaths from the disease, and withheld those numbers for months, Democrats in the Senate and Assembly felt the management of the pandemic needed more oversight.

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.

“The public deserves to have checks and balances,” Stewart-Cousins said.

“These temporary emergency powers were granted as New York was devastated by a virus we knew nothing about,” Heastie said. “Now it is time for our government to return to regular order.” 

Once the bill is approved, as early as next Monday, the emergency powers will no longer be in effect, although some directives, including vaccine procedures and the requirement to wear masks, will remain in effect for another 30 days.

After that, the governor will have to go through a process that includes notifying relevant Assembly and Senate chairs of his decisions, as well as the legislative leaders. All directives will 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 will 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.

Republicans in the Legislature, who were the first to back stripping Cuomo of the emergency powers, said the agreement is too little, too late. In a statement, Senate GOP Minority Leader Robert Ortt called it a “bogus backroom deal.”

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. She has covered state government and politics for the network since 1990.