Remember the New York State Legislature?
You’d be forgiven if you didn’t.
Ever since last March, when lawmakers granted Gov. Andrew Cuomo sweeping emergency powers aimed at expediting the state’s pandemic response, the Legislature has been relegated to bit player in the daily drama of New York state governance.
Rather than serve as a check on Cuomo’s newfound power, the Legislature quietly receded into the background, seemingly content to sit on the sidelines as the governor took center stage, issuing one COVID-19-related directive after another.
It’s an arrangement that made sense in the tumultuous early days of the pandemic, when flexibility and quick decision-making were of utmost importance.
But it’s not how American democracy is supposed to work.
It’s time for the Legislature to rescind Cuomo’s vast emergency powers, and reassert itself as a co-equal branch of government.
For too long, New York’s pandemic policy has been set almost solely by its executive — a state of affairs that has become increasingly problematic as time goes on and the need for greater oversight becomes evident.
From the start of the pandemic, Cuomo has cultivated a reputation as a take-charge leader working hard to keep New Yorkers safe.
In recent weeks, that reputation has taken a hit.
A report from state Attorney General Tish James found that the state undercounted nursing home COVID-19 deaths by as much as 50 percent. Then a state judge ordered the Cuomo administration to turn over data on nursing home deaths that it had kept secret, calling its failure to do so a violation of the state’s open government law.
A troubling New York Times article detailed an exodus of top staff from the state Department of Health, and suggested Cuomo’s failure to listen to his own health experts was driving the departures. On top of all that, the state’s vaccine distribution system has been heavily criticized as unnecessarily complex and slow-moving.
These missteps and controversies more than justify curtailing Cuomo’s broad emergency powers, which expire on April 30 unless renewed.
April 30 might not seem so far away, but it would be a mistake to wait until then to restore checks and balances to New York state government.
Between now and the end of April, the Legislature typically does quite a bit, with negotiating a state budget for the upcoming fiscal year topping its list of priorities. Last year lawmakers accepted a lesser role during the budget process; to do this two years in a row would be an unreasonable abdication of responsibility.
Fortunately, some lawmakers are starting to question Cuomo’s power, in part because the questions raised by the nursing home report are so troubling.
The Republican minority has been pushing to roll back Cuomo’s emergency powers, but now some Democrats have added their voices to the mix.
“Unfortunately, based on discoveries from the last few days … I believe the Legislature should conduct oversight hearings and re-evaluate the continued use of such broad emergency powers by the executive,” Senate Finance Chairwoman Liz Krueger, D-Manhattan, said in a statement.
More Democrats should join Krueger and the other lawmakers who have spoken out against Cuomo’s emergency powers in considering whether the governor’s authority should be reined in.
It’s been almost a year since the Legislature did much legislating.
That’s too long.
Lawmakers should act to limit Cuomo’s power, and take back some of their own.
Reach Sara Foss at [email protected] Opinions expressed here are her own and not necessarily the newspaper’s.