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Efforts to get state budget done early, as two state lawmakers fall ill from coronavirus

new york state capitol at night
Matt Ryan
New York NOW
The New York state Capitol building at night.

Gov. Andrew Cuomo said due to the worsening situation with the spreading coronavirus, he and the Legislature will work to finish the state budget this week, two weeks early, so that they can get their work finished before anyone falls ill.

The announcement comes as news that two members of the State Assembly now have the virus.

In a tweet, Assembly Speaker Carl Heastie announced that two Assembly members -- Helene Weinstein and Charles Barron, both of Brooklyn -- have been diagnosed with COVID-19.

Heastie said neither member has been in Albany since early March for separate reasons.

In a joint statement with Cuomo, Heastie said the Capitol and the Legislative Office Building will undergo an extensive cleaning, and the Capitol is closed to visitors, effective immediately.

In a statement, Weinstein said she began to feel ill on the evening of Wednesday, March 11, and immediately self-quarantined. She said she had already been home in her district since March 4, dealing with a personal matter. She said she is “resting comfortably and continuing to work from home.”

Just an hour earlier, Cuomo, in a conference call with reporters, said he wants to “accelerate” the budget process, and be done by March 20, because of the danger of lawmakers falling ill. The 213 legislators, as well as the governor, have extensive staff involved in budget negotiations, meaning that a session day at the Capitol is already crowded with several hundred people. 

“And we’re going to have to anticipate possible absences from the Legislature,” Cuomo said.

Cuomo said he thinks other items can also be still be included in the budget,  like legalizing the use of adult recreational marijuana, and rolling back some of the bail reform laws that ended many forms of cash bail on Jan. 1.

The state was facing a nearly $6 billion budget gap even before the stock market crash related to the virus occurred. A large part of the gap is due to increased spending on Medicaid, and the governor had set a panel to work on finding out ways to reduce health care spending.

Cuomo said the Medicaid gap is now complicated by the pending federal legislation to help those affected by the fallout from the coronavirus. The governor said the plan gives proportionately less money to New York and some other blue states, even though New York has the highest number of people infected with the virus.

He said if the federal bill -- passed in the House of Representatives on Friday but still pending in the Senate -- becomes law, then New York will not be able to fill its gap.

“You will never get the numbers to balance,” Cuomo said.

The federal bill would give over $7 billion in Medicaid aid to the state. But it would prevent Cuomo from enacting a key budget proposal to pass some of the increased Medicaid costs over to counties and New York City. The federal legislation would hold the local/state Medicaid split at 80% for the state and 20% for localities. The governor wants the local government to pay a higher percentage than that. The mayor of New York, Bill de Blasio, as well as county leaders across the state oppose the plan.

Earlier Saturday, de Blasio held a news conference with U.S. Sen. Chuck Schumer, who is Senate minority leader, to urge Senate Leader Mitch McConnell to pass the bill.

That led Cuomo to single out Schumer, as well as Westchester County Congresswoman Nita Lowey, for criticism.

“Mr. Schumer and Ms. Nita Lowey have to figure it out. They created the problem, let them solve it,” Cuomo said. “This is not one that they can blame on the president.”

Legislative leaders did not comment on the record about passing the budget early. But a source familiar with the current thinking said there is a real push to get it all done by Friday, March 20, but admitted it “won’t be easy.”

Meanwhile, the governor issued an executive order halting all petitioning for candidates to be on the ballot for the June primary as of March 17. And he said the new requirements for the number of signatures will be just 30% of the number originally required.

Cuomo received a rare endorsement for his actions from New York Republican Party Chair Nick Langworthy, who said in a statement that “when it comes to the safety and health of New Yorkers, we must put partisanship and politics aside during this public health crisis.”

Karen DeWitt is Capitol Bureau chief for New York State Public Radio, a network of public radio stations in New York state. She has covered state government and politics for the network since 1990.