Andrew Cuomo

Is Cuomo taking advantage of the coronavirus?

A few state legislators have taken issue with a new law that aims to tackle the coronavirus, suggesting that the governor is attempting a power grab. But is he really?

Governor Cuomo signing coronavirus legislation on March 3, 2020.

Governor Cuomo signing coronavirus legislation on March 3, 2020. Mike Groll/Office of Governor Andrew M. Cuomo

The state Legislature passed a bill late Monday night to allocate $40 million to tackle the coronavirus outbreak. Gov. Andrew Cuomo signed the bill into law early Tuesday morning, just as the second case of the virus in New York was confirmed in Westchester County.

The legislation also allows Cuomo to make any directive (an order or instruction) he wants in the event of a natural disaster, ranging from landslides to terrorist attacks. This means that the governor can override any local agency’s authority during a declared state of emergency. The law also stipulates that no suspension of a law or directive can be made if it is not in the interest of the public’s health and welfare, and is “not reasonably necessary to aid the disaster effort.”

While there was strong support for the bill prior to its passage, some lawmakers have expressed concerns with language that imbues Cuomo with more power, albeit during public health crises.

“This is far more sweeping than dealing with the public health issues in battling the coronavirus, so why would this majority grant unfettered discretion, unbridled authority and cede our powers … to the executive?” state Senate Minority Leader John Flanagan said during a floor speech on the bill.

Assembly Health Committee Chairman Richard Gottfried argued during a heated debate that “no governor, no health commissioner, ever had occasion to ask for anything like the powers that the governor is asking for in this bill.”

The New York Civil Liberties Union released a statement on Twitter on Monday night, urging lawmakers to reconsider the bill and questioning why the governor’s executive powers needed to be expanded. “There are no answers to the critical question of what activities are contemplated by the governor that are not already authorized by the existing emergency powers law,” the NYCLU wrote.

The organization also used the state Legislature’s expansion of the state’s antiterrorism law after 9/11 as an example of how disaster initiatives that expand certain powers can have long-lasting negative effects. “After 9/11, the state legislature approved a drastically expanded emergency antiterrorism law that has not been used to prosecute terrorism, but has been used to make other prosecutions easier,” the NYCLU wrote.

Zohran Mamdani, a Democratic Socialists of America-backed Assembly candidate in Queens, echoed the NYCLU’s concerns in a statement by pointing to the continued surveillance that many Muslim New Yorkers were subjected to after previous “executive overreach.”

“Mosques, businesses and homes across our district were subject to long-term, unlawful surveillance by the NYPD,” Mamdani wrote. “Although this isn’t the type of activity being contemplated in response to coronavirus, it nevertheless falls under the scope of the powers granted by this bill. Our district deserves representation that remembers this history and learns from it – and that’s exactly what I intend to bring to Albany.”

Ultimately, the bill passed the state Senate in a 53-4 vote.

However, Gerald Benjamin, a longtime political science professor at SUNY New Paltz, told City & State that he feels Cuomo is responding promptly to the immediate crisis and that his decision to include the Legislature “is good politics and good government.”

“To the degree that he’s extended his power past the immediate crisis, you might say it’s a power grab,” Benjamin said. “But I think if you look at the executive order, you’ll find that the governor has the authority to respond and has done so with past natural disasters, without legislation.”

State Senate Majority Leader Andrea Stewart-Cousins, who introduced the bill at the governor’s request, addressed concerns from fellow lawmakers following the vote. “We can continue to debate whether or not there is an overreach of power,” she said, according to Politico New York. “I think we all are looking at a lot of ways this could have transpired. But the reality is our state and our nation continues to look for leadership, and we probably, better than most places, have the ability to act. We have the facilities, we have the personnel and quite honestly, I know Sen. Flanagan has expressed great confidence in the national scene, I have confidence in New York.”

Assembly Speaker Carl Heastie also commented to reporters at the Capitol on the strong reactions that lawmakers had to the bill. “The governor raised this language, and some members did express their concerns, but the Legislature has the ability that, if the governor takes an action that we feel oversteps the bounds of where we think he should go, we can pass a concurrent resolution to undo it,” he said. “There is a check on the broadening of powers that is given to the governor.”

Cuomo explained why it was necessary for him to have the ability to make any necessary directives in the case of a state of emergency during a press conference in Albany on Tuesday morning. “Suspension of an existing law means I am removing an impediment from an agency,” he said. “But it does not give you the ability to affirmatively do anything. And in this situation (a coronavirus outbreak), the government has to act.”

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