Gustavo Rivera on coronavirus and Cuomo

State Senator Gustavo Rivera in 2015.
State Senator Gustavo Rivera in 2015.
Mary Altaffer/AP/Shutterstock
State Senator Gustavo Rivera in 2015.

Gustavo Rivera on coronavirus and Cuomo

The state senator warns of overreach as Cuomo pushes to pass an early budget.
March 18, 2020

The federal coronavirus stimulus bill could scramble Gov. Andrew Cuomo’s plans to fund $2.5 billion in budget savings through changes to the state Medicaid program. But lawmakers might pass a budget in the coming days. Whether it is bail reform, marijuana legalization, funding for health care and education, it is all on the line.

A key factor in all of this is how Cuomo will wield his political power on a wide variety of legislative fronts in a session increasingly defined by the coronavirus outbreak. Any governor of New York has formidable budgetary powers. But Cuomo has been particularly deft in achieving his objectives, most recently in getting the state Legislature to approve sweeping emergency powers – with just a few hours’ notice. 

Among the handful of legislators who voted against the emergency powers bill was State Senate Health Committee Chair Gustavo Rivera, an outspoken critic of the governor. City & State caught up with Rivera on Tuesday to hear his thoughts on the budget, Medicaid and how the state could do more to reduce the risk of spreading coronavirus in jails and prisons across the state.

A lot has been happening in the last few days. What is the big picture from your standpoint?

I will laud the governor for being far more responsible an executive than probably everybody else, whether it's the orange sociopath in the White House or the nincompoop in the frickin’ City Hall, but we need to watch him particularly this time. You have to pay attention to the details, because the governor is always about the details.

What do you make of what’s going on at the federal level with Medicaid and the coronavirus stimulus bill?

We'll have to see obviously what the final language is. We're not going to have a one-house budget proposal anymore, right? The recommendation that a work group was making to the leadership here in the Senate was that we push that back and we omitted it on purpose. It is my understanding that the Assembly was going to do the same thing. 

The governor is saying that the federal government is not letting him do what he wants to do in the budget, which is to shift costs to the localities for savings of $150 million. And he's willing to say to the feds: “I'm not going to accept over $6 billion in emergency Medicaid funding, because I want to do this myyyyy way.” Do you see what I'm saying? It doesn't make any damn sense to me. Right now on Medicaid, we're kind of in limbo, as we are with everything. I would argue that I'm glad that you're covering this because, yes, of course, we need to pay a lot of attention to the crisis that's ongoing. 

How does this play into the state budget?

We should be doing a bare-bones budget. That actually lets us go home and lets the state continue to operate. Then we come back in a few months when things have calmed down. 

The things that he is suggesting that we get done, and maybe as soon as this week, includes this bail reform reform, which from a moral and public health perspective is a dumb idea. I don't think we should ever do it, but certainly we should not do it now. 

No. 2, he's saying that we should legalize marijuana. There are different opinions within my conference, within the Assembly of what their final package should be like. He just wants to push that through. And then there is the idea that he wants to redesign in a couple of weeks a system that provides care for 1 out of 3 New Yorkers. He wants to just ram this through. It is unconscionable. We can't let the crisis that we find ourselves in right now allow us to be like: “You know, do whatever you want. Go ahead. We trust you. We believe you.” Guess what? I don't trust him. 

Now, again, he is doing some things that need to be done to act aggressively to deal with this crisis. However, at the same time, he is suggesting that we give him carte blanche on everything. My colleagues gave him an enormous amount of power. Once he gets done with the budget, he doesn't need a legislature anymore. He already has the power to do whatever the hell he wants. 

What is the connection between coronavirus and bail reform?

Our goal right now is to lower the impact on the health care system. We do that by social distancing. The idea that we would be trying to go back on bail reform right now … let's assume that every single person who's ever arrested for anything is guilty. It's not true, obviously, but let's assume that's the case. Keeping everybody in there only exacerbates the potential public health emergency that will occur.

How is the outbreak affecting incarcerated people?

Prisons are petri dishes for infections. They don't have good air circulation. They do not have good nutrition. These are crowded locations. They don't have access to soap and water on a regular basis. All of these things together mean that the more people that are incarcerated – even the people who are being held in jails, people that are still not been convicted of anything – the more they are at risk of carrying coronavirus.

Putting aside bail reform, how could the administration handle the incarcerated population better?

There're some bills that, with the (emergency) power that the governor now has, where he can actually impose certain things without legislative approval. There are many bills that relate to elder parole, for example. There are people who could be sped along in the process of being let out. 

People that are not dangerous to society that are in high-risk categories should be released. The New York City Board of Correction has now called for many of the actions we call for including the release of people over 50, those with underlying conditions, those detained for administrative reasons, like parole. Those are types of things that that we could do at the statewide level as well. 

Folks that are let out after being in for 20, 30 years, people over 60, the recidivism rate is basically nothing. if you're just looking at it from a fiscal standpoint, it costs us more because prisons are not places for healthy people. The moral argument is simple: Do we believe that these individuals are people? If we believe as individual people, then we owe them the same amount of respect that we do for anybody else.

Zach Williams
is a staff reporter at City & State.