New York Lawmakers Approve Bill to Strip Cuomo Pandemic-Era Powers

The New York legislature approved a bill to repeal pandemic-era emergency powers afforded to the scandal-plagued Governor Andrew Cuomo.

The measure, which received final passage from the Assembly on Friday evening, revokes temporary powers given to Cuomo in March that allowed him to supersede the legislature, as well as local laws, to issue hundreds of sweeping emergency directives on everything from closing businesses and schools to mandating the use of masks. The governor is expected to sign the measure after saying he helped negotiate it.

The rebuke from lawmakers, where Democrats hold a supermajority in both chambers, follows public outcry over sexual-harassment claims by three women against Cuomo and allegations that his administration deliberately covered up Covid-19 deaths of nursing-home residents. In the latest twist, Cuomo’s administration said Thursday that officials had altered a July report of data on the deaths to exclude those who had died outside the facilities. The administration was responding to a New York Times report that said these changes show that the state had a fuller accounting of the deaths at the time, despite resisting requests for that data.

A growing list of state lawmakers, including in his own Democratic party, have called for Cuomo’s resignation. The third-term governor has apologized for making women feel “uncomfortable,” and has acknowledged mistakes in reporting of the nursing-home data, but has refused to step down.

Disputed Account

Earlier this week, Cuomo said he had brokered the emergency-power deal with lawmakers to focus just on curbing new directives. Assembly Speaker Carl Heastie, a fellow Democrat, disputed Cuomo, saying lawmakers didn’t work with the governor to cut a deal.

Senate Deputy Majority Leader Michael Gianaris said on the floor that the governor lied to the public and was not involved in negotiations. Asked if he was bothered by the lie, Gianaris said: “There is so much that this governor has done that I’m bothered by.”

Asked if he trusts the governor, Gianaris said: “I haven’t trusted this governor in a long time.”

Under the new measure, the governor cannot issue any new orders. However, directives already in place can stand and even be altered with approval by the legislature.

The legislation, sponsored by Heastie and Senate Majority Leader Andrea Stewart-Cousins, would require Cuomo to issue a notice five days before extending or modifying any directives. The Legislature, or local municipality if applicable, would review the order. The Legislature can terminate the directives at any time and no directive could be acted on unless the governor has responded to all comments from relevant legislative committee chairs, or municipal entities, according to the bill.

Growing Tension

Currently, only the governor may declare and end a state of emergency. “For the first time ever, we are adding a power for the Legislature to nullify a state of emergency,” Gianaris said.

The bill also would require Cuomo to publicly post all information justifying emergency directives online in a searchable format.

But Republican lawmakers argued that the bill doesn’t fully revoke Cuomo’s powers, and it allows previous directives to continue. They also said the measure should have an expiration date.

“Let’s be clear about what this bill actually does and stop putting lipstick on a pig,” Republican Assemblyman Michael Lawler said on the floor.

Senator Andrew Lanza, a Staten Island Republican, said his no vote was “not about Andrew Cuomo the person.”

“This is about the Senate and the Assembly having a say with respect to what happens with their constituents back home,” he said. “One-party rule is one thing. One-man rule is entirely another.”

Crisis Response

The emergency powers were set to expire on April 30, but as the pandemic wore on, lawmakers bristled at Cuomo’s growing authority. Republicans introduced a number of measures to strip Cuomo’s emergency powers, but they had failed to take hold with enough of the Democrat-controlled Legislature. Lawmakers worried that revoking his authority would affect the state’s ability to quickly respond to the health crisis.

Democrats’ united push to revoke Cuomo’s powers highlights growing tension against the governor among members of his own party. The move comes just four weeks until the state budget deadline, threatening to impede Cuomo’s agenda.

Calls to pull back Cuomo’s powers increased after a Jan. 28 report from Attorney General Letitia James said that more nursing-home residents died from the virus than the state Health Department had reported. A top Cuomo aide later admitted that the state withheld the data from state lawmakers while it was being investigated by the federal government.

“While early versions of the report included out-of-facility deaths, the Covid task force was not satisfied that the data had been verified against hospital data and so the final report used only data for in- facility deaths, which was disclosed in the report,” state Health Department spokesperson Gary Holmes, said in a statement. “DOH was comfortable with the final report.”

Senator James Skoufis, in a statement on Friday, said the latest revelation in the Times report “demands answers and accountability.” He called for an investigation into state Health Commissioner Howard Zucker’s handling of nursing-home deaths.

White House spokeswoman Jen Psaki called the reports “troubling.” She said the Biden administration “certainly would support any outside investigation but this wouldn’t be a determination made by us.”

On Thursday, one of the governor’s accusers, former aide Charlotte Bennett said in an interview with CBS News that the governor propositioned her and asked if a past sexual trauma continued to affect her intimate relationships, an exchange that left her “terrified.”

Office Exits

At least four Cuomo aides have left their jobs since the allegations surfaced, including first deputy press secretary Will Burns and Gareth Rhodes, a senior adviser who often appeared at Cuomo’s televised virus briefings and helped lead the state’s vaccination effort. Rhodes’ wife on Monday tweeted her support for Anna Ruch, one of the governor’s accusers.

On Friday, Cuomo’s office confirmed the departure of interim policy adviser Erin Hammond and press secretary Caitlin Girouard.

Girouard, who departed on Friday, had issued the statement last month denying sexual-harassment allegations of Cuomo’s first accuser, former economic aide Lindsay Boylan. She said Boylan’s claims were “quite simply false” in a statement issued on Feb. 24. In a December statement, she had also said “there is simply no truth to these claims.” Girouard said she accepted a job offer in the private sector on Jan. 26 and that it was the “honor of a lifetime serving Governor Cuomo.” Hammond didn’t immediately respond to a request for comment but an administration spokesman said her departure had been planned for several months.

The uproar over the various allegations has taken a toll. Cuomo’s approval rating dropped to 45% in a Quinnipiac University poll released Thursday, from 72% in May 2020. While 59% say he should not seek a fourth term as governor, 55% of New York voters say Cuomo should not resign, as numerous Democrats in the Legislature have called on him to do.

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