New York State

State lawmakers’ comeback

Recent protests have helped the state Legislature reassert its power against the governor.

New York State Senate Majority Leader Andrea Stewart-Cousins in January of this year.

New York State Senate Majority Leader Andrea Stewart-Cousins in January of this year. NYS Senate Media Services

It is easy to get things done when everything is going your way politically speaking. That happened with Gov. Andrew Cuomo early on in the coronavirus pandemic – and it is happening this week for Democratic state lawmakers as they pass a package of police reform bills in response to recent unrest.

This change in the political environment has allowed state lawmakers to move bills that were once stuck in legislative limbo. The Legislature is expected to repeal Section 50-a (a contentious state law that blocks the public release of police disciplinary records) on Tuesday as well as pass new body camera requirements for state and local police, and codify the role of a special prosecutor in the attorney general’s office. Additional reforms are expected to pass Wednesday.

“Sometimes things happen that in the normal course of politics and government, where it just opens people’s eyes,” Assembly Speaker Carl Heastie told reporters Monday. “What some people believed was a tough issue (can) finally see the light of day.”

The legislative package comes in response to recent protests against systemic racism, but it also serves the purpose of demonstrating how state lawmakers are increasingly taking a bigger role in shaping the state’s response to what has become a three-pronged crisis caused by a deadly pandemic, systemic racism and the worst economic downturn since the Great Depression.

State lawmakers went more than six weeks without reconvening after passing the state budget in early April. During that time, the governor largely called the shots in state politics while state lawmakers remained in their districts. That legislative lull began to break in mid-May, with hearings on how the pandemic affected small businesses and minority communities.

While lawmakers passed a package of coronavirus-related bills at the end of May, there were limits on how it affected the state’s short-term response to the pandemic. Some codified executive orders in state law. Others arguably had more of a symbolic, rather than practical, purpose. The governor meanwhile remained in control of the top issue in the state – reopening the economy.

That would change on May 25. A confrontation between a white woman and a black birdwatcher in Central Park went viral, and the death of George Floyd, who was killed by police in Minneapolis, sparked the largest civil unrest in decades. With coronavirus cases still decreasing in New York, public attention began shifting to an issue more favorable to a state Legislature led by two black lawmakers.

New polling shows high public support for the protesters, and the criminal justice reform movement has shifted attention away from the public health crisis. The governor is no longer the undisputed center of attention in state politics, and his response to the recent protests has been uneven. “He sat on the sidelines and for some reason now tries to act like it is his agenda,” state Senate Democratic spokesman Mike Murphy recently tweeted.

It is not hard to see why the Legislature would be reluctant to share the limelight with a governor who suggested their work was done for the year after the state budget passed. However much state lawmakers have flexed their power in recent weeks, the governor still has enormous control over what may be the most political contentious issue of the year: figuring out how to address the multibillion-dollar state budget deficit caused by the pandemic.

Cuomo has warned that 20% cuts to public schools, health care and local governments could happen without more federal aid. Heastie and other liberal lawmakers have long advocated for higher taxes on the wealthy, and there has been a recent surge in efforts to divert funding away from law enforcement. “I would say at this point, I’m not throwing anything off the table,” Heastie told reporters Monday.

This puts state lawmakers in the tricky position of advocating for tax increases during an election year, but that may be the next test for a state Legislature looking to prove that it is reasserting its power as a coequal branch of government. A year ago, Heastie and state Senate Majority Leader Andrea Stewart-Cousins outmaneuvered the governor on rent reform and driver’s licenses for undocumented immigrants.

Whether it happens again will depend on how things shape up in the coming weeks. But legislative leaders say they’re going to continue passing bills in the coming weeks – and that means they are going to be more involved than ever in dealing with the ongoing challenges facing the state.