Since the pandemic began, Governor Andrew Cuomo has wielded an extraordinary amount of influence over the lives of New Yorkers, from deciding whether you can eat inside a restaurant or go to the gym, to who is eligible to receive the COVID-19 vaccine. Many of these powers were given to Cuomo by the Democratically-controlled state legislature last spring, and the governor remained popular through 2020, releasing a self-congratulatory book on his leadership and dismissing criticism over his handling of the pandemic as partisan.
Cuomo's 2021 has been considerably rockier. Attorney General Letitia James released a report showing that nursing home deaths statewide were undercounted by 50%, and a state judge has ordered the administration to turn over data on the deaths that it has shielded from scrutiny. The NY Times revealed that nine senior state health officials quit in succession as the governor continued to spurn public health expertise.
And after announcing that indoor dining would be reopened by February 14th, despite high infection rates of COVID-19 across the state, the governor insisted that it was a "cheap" and "insincere" suggestion that restaurant workers should be able to get vaccinated, then backpedaled and acknowledged that they would in fact be eligible.
"Now he doesn't have a scapegoat in Washington," Republican State Senator Joseph Griffo, the Deputy Minority Leader, told Gothamist, referring to the inauguration of President Joe Biden last month.
Griffo and his fellow Republicans did not get much Democratic support from their previous efforts to roll back the governor's executive powers. But that is starting to change. This week, Deputy Senate Majority leader Mike Gianaris told New Yorkers they "can expect the legislature will flex its muscles" in oversight hearings. State Senator Liz Krueger became the second Democratic member of her body to call for curtailing Cuomo's emergency powers after Senator Alessandra Biaggi.
"You look at the exodus of the professional staff, you look at the disastrous rollout in the vaccine and this disarray that exists, that's all contributing to members on both sides of the aisle saying, 'OK we need to revisit this,'" Griffo added.
Still, many Democrats, including the legislative leaders of the Democratic supermajority, Senate Majority Leader Andrea Stewart-Cousins and Assembly Speaker Carl Heastie, have remained circumspect. Neither office would say if they supported reconsidering the governor's emergency powers.
"The fact that it’s so far still considered an act of bravery and only a handful of legislators have said, 'we need to get to the bottom of this,' tells you how afraid of the governor they are," said John Kaehny, the executive director of the good government group Reinvent Albany.
That fear, according to Kaehny, is rooted in the extraordinary power that the governor has had over the state budget during the pandemic, allowing the executive to "withhold" funds instead of cutting them. According to the most recent report from the State Comptroller's office, the state is sitting on some $20 billion. A records request filed by Reinvent Albany shows that only $700 million of $3 billion in withheld money has been publicly accounted for, including $260 million that is being held from the MTA.
"We still don’t know, right now, how much money the governor and his Division of the Budget has withheld from specific programs and agencies and authorities. And how much of those monies that are withheld are permanent cuts or will be repaid," Kaehny said. "The governor’s sitting on this big pile of cash, and it's giving him this huge power of the purse, and he has these emergency powers to pay back or not pay back."
The governor's office has noted that the legislature can hold hearings and override actions by the governor.
"How can you vote on something where you don’t have the information, because it is being withheld?" countered Susan Lerner, the head of Common Cause, another good government group.
"Decisions are made and carried out on a secret basis. Look at the problems that have attended trying to figure out what actually happened with nursing homes and COVID-19 and the lack of transparency there." Lerner said. She added that it was important to scrutinize Cuomo's emergency powers now, and not before they expire in April, because that is when the new budget is due.
"To continue that extraordinary power into yet another budget year really does not seem wise," Lerner said.
In an email, Cuomo spokesperson Rich Azzopardi wrote, "I know the advocacy industrial complex loves the sound of their own voice, but we’re fighting a pandemic. We’re focused on getting sticks in arms and getting the vaccine and the funding New York needs and deserves from Washington. I am not going to waste my time on speculation."
Kaehny pointed out that the MTA is still under an emergency order from 2017's "summer of hell," as the governor has renewed it 44 times to override the transit agency's procurement and oversight policies.
"This is a governor who loves emergency powers," Kaehny said.