ALBANY — State legislators changed Gov. Andrew Cuomo’s sweeping broadened authority granted at the start of the COVID-19 pandemic by passing a bill late Friday afternoon.
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The legislation was passed after lawmakers clashed for hours in a special session and said the governor lied this week about helping to negotiate the repeal.
The bill first passed the Senate with a 43-20 vote with all Democrats voting in favor and each Republican senator voting against.
The measure passed the Assembly late Friday afternoon with a vote of 107-43. Democrats lead both chambers.
The measure revokes Cuomo’s authority to issue new directives. Cuomo has issued 96 executive directives since the start of the pandemic, and about 60 remain in effect.
The measure authorizes the governor to extend or modify directives in effect to respond to the ongoing pandemic, but requires a five-day notice to the state Legislature and local elected officials before changes take effect.
“Today, under this new legislation, the governor will no longer be able to issue any new directives, period,” Senate Majority Leader Andrea Stewart-Cousins, D-Yonkers, said from the floor at the end of Friday’s special session.
Under Friday’s measure, the Legislature can vote to terminate a state disaster emergency by concurrent resolution and a simple majority vote.
Cuomo has come under fire by lawmakers, officials and activists across the nation in recent weeks, with several state Democrats calling for his resignation this week, after three women publicly accused him of sexual harassment or unwanted intrusive sexual advancements. New York’s Attorney General Letitia James is investigating the claims.
A federal investigation is ongoing into Cuomo and his administration after several reports since last month that revealed the state intentionally removed COVID-19 nursing home fatality data from the state Health Department’s self-published report last July and top aides allegedly delayed publishing public data to evade federal backlash under former President Donald Trump.
At his regular COVID-19 briefing Wednesday, Cuomo said, while glancing at top aides seated around the table, “We have an agreement on a bill, where the Legislature can repeal any executive order that I issue with over 50 percent, both houses.”
Stewart-Cousins and Deputy Senate Majority Leader Mike Gianaris, D-Queens, said on the floor Friday that the governor lied this week and did not help to negotiate the agreement.
“Are you bothered the governor lied about this legislation?” Sen. Dan Stec, R-Queensbury, asked Gianaris before Friday’s vote.
“There is much this governor has done that I’m bothered by,” Gianaris replied.
A few minutes later, Stec asked the deputy majority leader if he trusted Cuomo.
“I haven’t trusted this governor in a long time, senator,” Gianaris said.
Representatives from Cuomo’s office did not return multiple requests for comment Friday.
Cuomo’s additional authority will remain in effect until the federal government declares the official end of the coronavirus pandemic.
Debate also continued in the Assembly for several hours until late Friday afternoon.
Assemblyman Mark Walczyk, R-Watertown, extensively questioned bill sponsor Assemblyman Kenneth Zebrowski, D-New City, on the floor about how it would affect the governor’s executive overreach.
“Does this bill prevent the governor from deciding whose jobs are essential and whose aren’t essential? No, it sure doesn’t,” Walczyk said at the end of his time debating the bill. “What about from stripping the governor from telling people how many visitors they can have in their home, or from telling pastors how many parishioners they can have in their church?”
Zebrowski reiterated the Legislature’s review process and potential to cancel each directive.
The measure is not related to the state budget or negotiations, Zebrowski said.
If the Legislature took no action Friday, the governor’s expanded pandemic powers were set to expire April 30.
The bill also requires Cuomo to publicly respond to any comments made by legislators or local leaders about a directive if one is extended. The governor must also create a searchable database of all current executive actions on the state website to inform the public.
Walczyk said in a statement later Friday the Legislature’s bill changed nothing.
“I’m very disappointed. In fact, New York will be worse off,” he said. “This legislation gives the governor the power to decide when he wants his powers to expire. This is not what New Yorkers want or deserve. This is nothing but smoke and mirrors. The governor’s buddies are covering for him, plain and simple.”
The north country assemblyman remarked on the bill and allegations against Cuomo’s conduct.
“This legislation that was put before lawmakers doesn’t hold the governor accountable and does absolutely nothing to prevent him from using his power to block any independent investigation into his actions,” Walczyk said. “Simply put, nothing has or will change.”
Assembly Speaker Carl Heastie, D-Bronx, said the measure is a step toward return to normalcy as the end of the pandemic draws closer as more people get a COVID vaccine.
“A year ago, as New York was being ravaged by COVID-19, we passed legislation to give the governor temporary emergency powers that would allow the state to nimbly react to a constantly evolving, deadly situation,” Heastie said in a statement. “These temporary emergency powers were always meant to be that — temporary.
“Now, New Yorkers are getting vaccinated and we are beginning to look toward a return to normalcy,” he added, “and with that, our government must return to regular order. By immediately repealing the temporary emergency powers, allowing no new directives to be issued and bringing transparency and oversight to the standing directives, we can establish better communication and collaboration with our local communities and help preserve the health and wellbeing of New Yorkers as we see the light at the end of the tunnel of this devastating and deadly health care crisis.”
Assembly Minority Leader William Barclay, R-Pulaski, said the changes show Democrats in the majority conference are not willing to govern independently of Cuomo.
“They have repeatedly rejected a full repeal of the governor’s powers and instead passed legislation that keeps New York on its current path with no end date in sight,” he said. “Restoring state government to the representative democracy it was always intended to be shouldn’t be political and it shouldn’t be problematic. Assembly Democrats are making it both.”
Recent scandals prompting investigations into Cuomo’s administration has caused trust between the Legislature and executive branch to plummet, Barclay said.
Republicans assert the measure does not effectively change the governor’s enhanced spending or directive decision-making because it’s not a clean repeal of his broadened authority.
Senate Republicans introduced an amendment in attempts to strip Cuomo of his additional authority 22 times since last May, including one Friday.
“Under the current resolution, this body had the ability to rescind any number of the executive orders and we have done nothing,” Senate Minority Leader Rob Ortt, R-North Tonawanda, said before voting against the measure.
Sen. Patricia Ritchie, R-Heuvelton, said Friday’s legislation worsens the governor’s power because they do not expire under the new bill, and last year’s executive orders — such as limiting indoor residential gatherings to 10 people and business capacity — remain in effect.
“To be clear, legislation advanced today that’s being painted as a revocation of the governor’s emergency powers does nothing to change the current dynamic in Albany,” Ritchie said. “In fact, it actually makes things worse by removing the original April 30 expiration date on the governor’s unchecked authority.
“If the Majority was serious about returning our state to a system of checks and balances, they wouldn’t have negotiated this back-room deal with the governor, who in recent days has been the focus of very serious, troubling allegations,” she added. “Legislation advanced today was nothing but a hollow political gesture that unfortunately, continues to prevent the Legislature from doing its job.”
On Wednesday, Cuomo reviewed the Legislature’s vote last March to award the governor additional authority.
“When we first did this, we thought the pandemic would be open over April 30. This is a year ago — we said about a year,” Cuomo said Wednesday. “At that time, it was implausible to think it was going to go beyond the year. It’s gone beyond the year and it’s not going to end by April 30.
“Whatever order I put in place, the Legislature can repeal it in 24 hours or whenever they choose, and that’s always been the way,” he added.
The governor is permitted to make emergency changes determined by state Health Department in the proposed legislation.
“We will give notice as soon as possible,” said Beth Garvey, Cuomo’s special counsel and senior adviser, about how soon the executive chamber would notify the public of an emergency change to a directive.
The bill was delivered Friday to the governor’s desk for his signature.