In the wake of a damning report on sexual harassment allegations from the state Attorney General’s office, Governor Andrew Cuomo will now leave office after a decade in Albany. Lieutenant Governor Kathy Hochul will serve out the rest of his third term, becoming the 57th governor of New York, and the first female governor of New York.
With the transition happening early Tuesday morning, you might be wondering: what exactly is the extent of the governor's powers? What is Hochul expected to do in office? We consulted with historian Dr. Gerald Benjamin, a political science professor at SUNY New Paltz and one of the foremost experts on state government in New York, to offer a quick rundown of what a functional New York governor is able to do.
What Are The Governor's Formal Powers?
As chief executive of the state, the governor has a huge amount of powers including: the ability to appoint people to major positions (and the ability to demand their resignations); the power to approve or veto bills; the power to convene the legislature; the ability to set the state's yearly budget; the ability to grant pardons (except involving impeachment or treason); command of the state's military force; and the potential for unlimited service.
Wait, The Governor Can Govern Forever?
This is one of the major keys to understanding how someone like Cuomo was able to consolidate so much power over the course of his two and a half terms: every governor is elected for a four year term with no term limits. Most modern New York governors have gone on to serve three or even four terms as a result (with a few exceptions, like Eliot Spitzer).
This longevity is what imbues a governor with the ability to truly set and achieve their agendas. "A lack of term limitations is extremely important because everyone in New York knows they may have to deal with this person over the long term," said Benjamin.
Andrew Cuomo's father Mario, who served three terms, was defeated when he ran for his fourth by Republican George Pataki (who went on to serve three terms himself). Many expected the younger Cuomo to pursue and be the likely favorite when he ran for a fourth term next year, achieving a tenure that exceeded his father. But with his resignation scheduled, his secretary, Melissa DeRosa, said Monday that he has no plans to run for office again.
How Do Those Appointments Work?
The governor has particularly great influence through the appointments process. The NY constitution limits a maximum of 20 departments under the Executive Branch, and the governor appoints almost all of the heads of those departments and agencies. That includes: Agriculture & Markets, Civil Service, Correctional Services, Economic Development, Education, Environmental Conservation, Family Assistance, Financial Services, Health, Labor, Mental Hygiene, Motor Vehicles, Public Service, State, Taxation & Finance and Transportation.
The exceptions are: The Commissioner of the State Education Department, who is appointed by the State Board of Regents; and the Chancellor of the State University of New York and the Chancellor of the City University of New York, both of whom are appointed by a Board of Trustees.
Besides the governor and lieutenant governor, who are voted on the same ticket in the general election, the only other two statewide government officers directly elected are State Comptroller (who heads the Department of Audit and Control) and Attorney General (who heads the Department of Law).
And even if the governor doesn't directly appoint someone, Benjamin points out that if he calls on them, they almost always respond. "Go back to those COVID press conferences, you'll see lots of people appearing who don't directly work for the governor but went over to the Executive Branch to work," Benjamin said. "So even if he doesn't appoint them, he can ask them to assist him, and no commissioner will say no."
What About The MTA?
Even agencies that are designed to be autonomous in practice fall prey to the appointments of the governor. The constant public confusion over who really controls the MTA is a good example of this: the organization is run by a 21-member board, of which there are 14 voting members. Cuomo directly nominates four of them plus the Chairman/CEO, but he also has the power to influence the nominations from the various county executives, who each get one nominee. "Effectively, the governor controls the board from the number and nature of those appointees," said Benjamin.
How Have Gubernatorial Powers Been Increased?
Governors are able to take the initiative in the legislative process, because they are required to give the annual State Of The State speech in which they set the agenda for New York for the coming year. "So everyone who wants something from New York wants to get it into the State Of The State or the budget," Benjamin says.
Significantly, the governor also has the veto power over the legislation. "Mario Cuomo once said to me that, when it comes to making law, 'They can act without me, but I cannot act without them?'” Benjamin quoted. The elder Cuomo's point was that although he could block a law from being passed, the legislature, by a two-thirds vote, could always override his veto, and therefore there was a checks and balances system in place.
But up until 2020 (when the Democrats took over two-thirds of the seats in both the Assembly and the Senate for the first time in over 70 years), the two-thirds vote has generally been an incredibly high bar to pass, and vetos have rarely been overturned. In fact, up until 1976, none were overturned at all, and both Mario and Andrew Cuomo were able to maneuver during their separate tenures so none of their vetoes were overturned as well.
And over the course of the pandemic, Andrew Cuomo expanded his reach even farther when the legislature voted overwhelmingly to bestow him with emergency executive powers, which gave him "virtually unilateral discretion to modify or suspend any law or regulation in a disaster." Cuomo was able to issue hundreds of executive orders affecting New Yorkers, from the early stay-at-home orders to school reopenings to who was eligible to receive a vaccine. That's how he was able to set mask mandates, create various colored COVID zones based on infection rates, ban indoor dining, and so much more. (Those powers were finally scaled back this past March, but were not totally relinquished until June.)
"All governors push the limits, but there's incremental and aggregate consequences," said Benjamin. "Cuomo was given extraordinary powers to deal with COVID. He has a very confrontational and domineering leadership style. You get things done but there's a cost: resentment, hostility. The people you step on your way up the ladder you'll meet on the way down, as they say."
This All Sounds Very Formal, But What Informal Powers Does The Governor Hold?
First and foremost, the governor holds the soft power of commanding the attention of the media. "It's very hard to get into the press if you're a state senator, for example," Benjamin said. "Downstate is where the people and votes are, and the governor commands attention of daily papers far more than other local officials do. And the governor is thus able to define their agenda through messaging in the press."
Governors also often become potential presidential candidates, with all the social cache that entails: Theodore Roosevelt and Franklin D. Roosevelt ascended to the position, while everyone from Nelson Rockefeller to Hugh Carey to Mario Cuomo sought it out or considered it seriously. Rumors of presidential ambitions were certainly swirling around Andrew Cuomo before he was accused of sexual misconduct.
"People want to know this person, work for them, hitch their wagon and go to Washington with a rising sun," Benjamin said.
The governor is able to introduce people across worlds that go far beyond the state constitution: "They can invite you to dinner and sit you down next to the point guard for the Knicks or the head of the NY Stock Exchange," Benjamin said. "The governor has the potential to bring people together and do favors that are entirely okay within the law, and open up opportunities for them to have conversations."
Ultimately, what unites all these strands is the idea that the governor of New York is now an automatic part of celebrity culture: "People in society at every level have been suspicious of the legislature because it's opaque and the locus of deals and slightly odorous with lots of corruption, but the governor is empowered by the fact that we ask people every month, or more frequently, 'how is the governor doing, how is the president doing, who would you support in an upcoming election?'" said Benjamin. "It's an executive-centered dynamic. Your standing in the polls is a source of power and opportunity."