Soon, lawmakers will vote to heavily curtail those powers.
Amid dueling scandals engulfing the Cuomo administration, state legislative leaders announced Tuesday that they will pass a bill in the coming days to repeal the temporary emergency powers given to the Democratic governor at the start of the COVID-19 pandemic.
Some directives, such as requiring mask wearing and social distancing, would continue unabated for at least 30 days and can be extended further.
But lawmakers would be able to repeal any declared state of emergency by joint resolution and have the ability to change any directive brought forth by Cuomo, stripping him of his ability to do so unilaterally.
“I think everyone understands where we were back in March and where we are now,” Senate Majority Leader Andrea Stewart-Cousins, D-Yonkers, said in a statement.
“We certainly see the need for a quick response, but also want to move toward a system of increased oversight and review.”
The move by the Legislature has been expected for weeks amid growing concerns that Cuomo has taken too strong a hand in the pandemic response, particularly as COVID infection rates have fallen and the focus is increasingly on vaccine distribution.
And Cuomo’s powers were already set to expire in April.
But the announcement comes as Cuomo is severely damaged.
Cuomo weakened amid scandals
Cuomo’s administration was found to have undercounted the number of COVID deaths in nursing homes, and his directive March 25 to allow nursing home residents to return from hospitals with the virus has been widely panned.
And over the past week, Cuomo has faced charges from two aides of sexual harassment, sending his administration into a spiral.
Calls for his resignation have grown among lawmakers and groups. His handling of the nursing home cases is under investigation by the U.S. Department of Justice, while the sexual harassment allegations are being investigated by Attorney General Letitia James, who will soon appoint an attorney to lead the probe.
“A year into the pandemic, and as New Yorkers receive the vaccine, the temporary emergency powers have served their purpose – it is time for them to be repealed,” Assembly Speaker Carl Heastie, D-Bronx, said in a statement.
When the pandemic started, Cuomo asked for and received broad latitude from the Legislature to issue emergency orders to address the virus’ rapid spread, which in April was killing as many as 800 people a day.
The orders allowed Cuomo to shutter all non-essential businesses in March, shift resources among hospitals and implement policies in nursing homes.
The orders have continued since, whether it pertains to capacity limits in restaurants or how the vaccine will be distributed.
How the Legislature may change Cuomo’s role
Cuomo’s power would soon be severely cut. He would have to sign the bill into law, but if he vetoes it, the Democratic-controlled Legislature has the ability to override him.
There was no immediate comment from Cuomo’s office.
Assemblyman Ken Zebrowski, a Rockland County Democrat who chairs the Government Operations Committee, said New York has “learned a lot” over the past year, and the Legislature believes it’s “time that we augment legislative, municipal and public input.”
“I think it’s time that we force the executive to consult with the Legislature and consult with the municipalities and to prove to us that decisions they’re making are based upon science,” Zebrowski said.
“And absent that, these decisions should be revoked and no longer decided by one person under a cloak of secrecy.”
Cuomo’s directives that “manage the spread or reduction of COVID-19” and deal with the vaccination process would remain in effect for 30 days after the bill is passed.
But after that, Cuomo would need to notify relevant Senate and Assembly committee chairs as well as legislative leaders on the reasons why an extension or modification might be needed.
Then lawmakers would have the opportunity to respond, and any extension would need to be proven to be COVID related.
Legislative leaders said that any order “will not be continuously modified or extended unless the governor has responded to comments provided by the chairs of relevant committees.”
Also, local governments would have a larger say. They have long complained that they have been cut out of the COVID response by the Cuomo administration.
“Where a local government in the state is exclusively impacted by an ongoing executive action, the local government leadership will also receive notice and an opportunity to comment on the continuation or modification,” the legislative announcement said.
Also, 15 days after the bill is signed into law, all current orders would need to be posted on the governor’s website in a searchable format, the legislative leaders said.
They said the site would need to be updated every 30 days to include responses to written comments or information requests from lawmakers or municipal leaders.
“With the advent of the COVID-19 vaccine, and with the end of our state and national pandemic in sight, I join my colleagues to revoke the governor’s extraordinary powers granted to him at the start of the coronavirus pandemic,” Assemblyman Harry Bronson, D-Rochester, said in a statement.
“Recent revelations and allegations have also demonstrated a need to revoke the governor’s emergency powers.”