The New York State Legislature is wrapping up its business for 2020 at the state Capitol this week in a session that is perhaps defined more by what lawmakers are not doing than what they have been doing.
Many of the bills acted on by the Senate and Assembly address the nuts and bolts of government, like renewing sales tax authorization for localities and clarifying existing laws.
But perhaps the elephant in the room is the state’s $15 billion budget deficit. Gov. Andrew Cuomo has threatened to cut aid to schools, local governments and hospitals by as much as 20% if Congress does not agree on a relief package. Cuomo has already temporarily cut aid to some cities by a fifth.
Senate Majority Leader Andrea Stewart-Cousins, in an interview with public radio and television, said decisions on how to balance the budget will have to wait until the details of the federal relief package are known. She said she’s hopeful there will be aid for the state, because it’s now not just blue states that are suffering; red states like Texas and Florida are hit hard as well.
“As COVID rages throughout the nation, everybody is being hit one way or another with the incredible expense,” Stewart-Cousins said.
In this year’s budget, the Legislature granted Cuomo the ability to unilaterally add or subtract funding to deal with the fiscal uncertainties caused by the COVID-19 pandemic. Under the rules, the Legislature has 10 days to change those decisions or they become law. Stewart-Cousins said the Senate plans to be involved.
“We expect we’ll be back,” she said.
A number of progressive Democrats in the Legislature are pushing for higher taxes on the wealthy. That's something Cuomo is against and the Senate leadership has not yet endorsed.
The legislature, in addition to granting new budget powers to the governor, also gave Cuomo broad emergency authority during the pandemic. It has allowed the governor to make decisions like closing down businesses and schools and mandating the wearing of masks.
Some government reform groups have been critical, saying the Legislature needs to take back some of its constitutionally granted authority.
Republicans, who are in the minority in both houses, also voiced concerns. Senate GOP Leader Rob Ortt said when the pandemic first hit New York, it made sense to place one person in charge.
“Sometimes you can’t deliberate on every decision,” said Ortt. “But we are long past that point.”
Ortt said his over 300,000 constituents expect him to be more involved in the decision-making process.
Ortt said several months later, it feels like the rules of democracy are being subverted.
“Democrats are not providing any oversight of the governor’s decisions throughout this pandemic,” Ortt said. “And that is a real problem that I think should concern all New Yorkers.”
Ortt accused Democrats of being political by not acting to curb the Democratic governor.
“I can guarantee you if it was a Republican governor, they wouldn’t be fine with it,” Ortt said.
A spokesman for the Senate Democrats, Gary Ginsberg, replied that “as much as the Republicans want to pretend the pandemic is over, it is not.”
Ginsberg, in a statement, said the state needs “a centralized approach."
Stewart-Cousins said, for now, Democrats are OK with the governor retaining the ability to make quick decisions, and she does not think lawmakers gave him too much authority.
“I think New Yorkers agree that the governor has handled the powers extraordinarily well,” said Stewart-Cousins. “We are not done with this pandemic.”
The governor’s emergency powers expire in April. The Legislature can renew them at that time if they think they're still needed.