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Cuomo COVID powers reined in

Gov. Andrew Cuomo provides a coronavirus update Friday, Feb. 19, from the Red Room at the State Capitol. (Provided photo — Mike Groll, governor's office)

ALBANY — State lawmakers changed Gov. Andrew Cuomo’s sweeping broadened authority granted at the start of the COVID-19 pandemic by passing a bill Friday evening, after legislators clashed for hours in a special session and said the governor lied this week about helping to negotiate the repeal.

The bill, S.5357, passed the Senate with a 43-20 vote and the Assembly 107-43, with all Democrats voting in favor and each Republican state senator voting against.

The measure revokes Cuomo’s authority to issue new directives. Cuomo has issued 96 executive directives since the start of the pandemic. 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 Legislature and local elected officials before changes take effect.

Republicans assert the measure does not effectively change the governor’s enhanced spending or directive decision-making because it is not a clean repeal of his broadened authority.

Sen. Dan Stec, R-Queensbury, argued on the Senate floor that this bill continues rather than rescinds Cuomo’s power over many aspects of people’s lives, from businesses to schools to weddings. He said that after the initial confusion over this bill, New Yorkers will soon figure out who has control over their lives, and will know that Republicans had the truth of the matter. Stec said recent scandals have shown Cuomo is not worthy of the weighty trust state lawmakers have given him.

Senate Majority Leader Andrea Stewart-Cousins said from floor at the end of Friday’s special session, “Today, under this new legislation, the governor will no longer be able to issue any new directives, period.”

Under Friday’s measure, the Legislature can vote to terminate a state disaster emergency by concurrent resolution and a simple majority vote.

“We have come a long way from where we were then because of New Yorker’s strength and response to control this pandemic, and in light of recent events, however, it is clear that we need to move toward a system of increased oversight, review and verification between the Legislature and the executive branch and also limit the powers granted to the governor,” Stewart-Cousins added.

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. State 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%, both houses.”

Stewart-Cousins and Deputy Majority Leader Sen. 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?” Stec 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 requests for comment Friday.

Cuomo’s additional authority will remain in effect until the federal government declares the official end of the coronavirus pandemic.

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 create a searchable database of all current executive actions on the state website to inform the public.

North Country Assemblyman Billy Jones, D-Chateaugay Lake, voted for the bill.

“We’re not in the same place now as we were a year ago,” he said in a press release. “This legislation will restore the balance of power that allows our government to run smoothly and ensure our communities have a greater say in the state’s response to this pandemic moving forward.”

Jones added, “While some of these facts have been clouded by misinformation, I want North Country residents to rest assured that this legislation serves its intended purpose and will allow us to responsibly return to a transparent, co-equal body of government.”

Sen. Patty Ritchie, R-Watertown, said Friday’s legislation makes the governor’s pandemic powers worse because they do not have an expiration date and last year’s executive orders, including limiting indoor residential gatherings to 10 people and additional business regulations, 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.

…our state remains under one-person rule. I understand the need to have guidelines protecting public health during an unprecedented, global health crisis. However, as the pandemic continues, the Legislature needs to be part of making the decisions that govern our daily lives.

“If the Majority was serious about returning our state to a system of checks and balances, they wouldn’t have negotiated this backroom deal with the governor, who in recent days has been the focus of very serious, troubling allegations. Simply put, 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.

“… Again, 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 Department of Health 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.

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