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Partisan divide emerges over bill retooling Cuomo’s pandemic powers

New York Senate Minority Leader Rob Ortt (Official photo)

ALBANY — Democratic and Republican lawmakers clashed Wednesday on the significance of a new measure to curb the emergency powers ceded to Gov. Andrew Cuomo a year ago to manage the state’s response to the pandemic.

At least 14 times this year, the GOP legislators tried without success to advance legislation to rescind that authority. This week, with Cuomo engulfed in scandals involving allegations he sexually harassed at least three women and charges he failed to adequately protect nursing home residents from the contagion, Democrats embraced the Republican concept and put their own label on it.

The new legislation is expected to be approved Friday, after Assembly Speaker Carl Heastie and Senate Democratic Leader Andrea Stewart-Cousins agreed to the bill language.

But Senate GOP Leader Rob Ortt, R-Niagara County, argued the measure effectively keeps lawmakers out of the loop, with Cuomo continuing to call the important shots.

“This does not rescind his powers at all,” Ortt said. “This was about the Legislature establishing itself as a coequal branch of government. Today, we found out our colleagues across the aisle have no desire for such an order.”

New York Assembly Speaker Carl Heastie, D-Bronx, speaks during a news conference June 23, 2015, at the Capitol in Albany. (AP photo — Tim Roske)

Ortt said the new arrangement would keep in place every Cuomo order and directive for 30 days, after which the governor could modify or reissue them for another 30 days, “just like he can now.”

But Heastie said the legislation “immediately repeals” the governor’s expanded emergency power and blocks him from using that authority to issue new directives.

The Assembly’s top Democrat said Cuomo would be required to “justify” to the Legislature the extension of any existing order within 30 days. Further, he said, the Legislature can repeal any executive order with a simple majority vote, he added.

Stephen Acquario, director of the state Association of Counties, called the legislation a “good first step,” suggesting it sets the stage for further expansions in the role of local governments to deal with economic and employment challenges that have been magnified during the pandemic.

“We hope the next phase works towards further rebalancing of the governmental jurisdiction and returns the powers back to where they were pre-pandemic — and that would be the local and county governments.”

Scott Wexler, the director of a trade group whose member have been heavily impacted by Cuomo-imposed restrictions, the Empire State Restaurant & Tavern Association, said state officials will likely remain in control of setting and easing restrictions.

“I don’t believe that this change will create a local opportunity to loosen restrictions because that is not, the way I understand, how the proposal works,” Wexler said.

Cuomo continued to draw criticism from people both within and outside of state government for his handling of the harassment allegations, which are to be the focus of an investigation by a law firm to be lined up by state Attorney General Letitia James.

“He tried to pick the investigator. Then he tried to pick the people who pick the investigator,” former federal prosecutor Preet Bharara told a CNN interviewer.

Earlier in the day, Cuomo’s top aide, Melissa DeRosa, told reporters that James became involved after the governor’s office “asked her to come in.”

But Bharara said that Cuomo “has no choice but to see what happens” with the investigation that is now beyond his control.

Meanwhile, state officials said restrictions imposed on musical performances and stage shows will be relaxed across New York on April 2 as coronavirus test positivity rates drop Under the new guidance, the entertainment and arts venues will be allowed to resume shows at 33% of the rated audience capacity up to a maximum of 100 people at indoor venues. For outdoor performances, as many as 200 people could be in attendance.

Many performing artists have had to line up other forms of employment or struggled through the pandemic by staging shows on Zoom or social media channels, hoping to generate online donations to support their acts.

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