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Concerns raised over expansion of governor’s powers

State Assemblymen Andrew Goodell, R-Jamestown, rarely finds himself in agreement with New York City-area Assemblymen Richard Gottfried and Charles Barron.

But, on Monday, there were Goodell, Gottfried and Barron disagreeing — for similar reasons — with emergency legislation to spend $40 million to protect New Yorkers from the coronavirus and change the emergency powers granted to Gov. Andrew Cuomo. All three have concerns that seemingly innocuous language changes in the legislation could give unprecedented authority to Cuomo for as long as the governor wants it. The legislation, A.9953/S.7919, gives the governor the authority to issue directives in response to a disaster. The bill’s text defines disaster as an occurrence or imminent, impending or threat of widespread or severe damage, injury or loss of life or property resulting from any natural or man-made causes. It also gives the governor the ability to temporarily suspend any statute, local law or ordinance, or orders, rules or regulations. Prior law required specific provisions of laws to be referenced in a suspension order. The legislature would be allowed to convene and revoke a directive legislators agree is too broad.

The governor trumpeted the news Tuesday morning that the state Legislature approved Cuomo’s emergency appropriation of $40 million to pay for additional staff, equipment and other resources needed to respond to the global coronavirus outbreak in case it spreads quickly in New York state, but the debate in the state Assembly was far from a party-line debate. The bill was approved 122-12 in the state Assembly and 53-4 in the state Senate.

“I think it’s better for us to be proactive and to be prepared just in case something happens where the governor will have the authority before any epidemics take place to take action,” said Assemblyman Felix Ortiz, D-Brooklyn. “I think that we need to be visionary, we need to be cautious. This is not overreacting. This is a good action on our part to make sure that we keep our state safe.”

Goodell took issue with the governor’s Message of Necessity that waived necessary waiting periods to allow the legislature to vote on the bill the same day it was introduced even though Cuomo had said constantly that state residents should remain calm because the coronavirus is far from becoming an epidemic, including a news release Sunday in which the governor said, “There is no reason for undue anxiety — the general risk remains low in New York. We are diligently managing this situation and will continue to provide information as it becomes available.” That language was similar, Goodell said, to discussion Cuomo has had with legislators before sending the Message of Necessity.

“So my greatest concern isn’t that we’re standing up and addressing a situation,” Goodell said. “I think that’s imperative. But for Pete’s sake, let’s do it in a thoughtful, organized manner. The governor tells us this afternoon we have no emergency and at 7 p.m. he sends us an emergency message. The governor says you don’t have to worry because we’re fully mobilized and then says you can’t take three days to debate this bill and think about it and review the language. My friends, that’s ridiculous. Which side of the mouth are we talking about right now? It’s OK. It’s an emergency. It’s OK. It’s an emergency. Come on. We need to take the approach, a thoughtful, careful approach. That’s our responsibility. I share the deep concerns expressed by my colleagues on the other side, Mr. Barron and Mr. Gottfried. I urge us all to act with great caution.”

Goodell chose to vote for the legislation despite his reservations. Barron and Gottfried did not, and their words on the Assembly floor were striking. Gottfried is a progressive Democrat who has championed the New York Health Act which would provide health care for all New Yorkers as well as a legislation to provide free college to all New York students. Gottfried has served as chairman of the Assembly’s Health Committee since 1987 — and the New York City Democrat said he has seen health crises rise and fall during his time on the legislature without seeing a governor ask for any expansion of authority as was proposed Monday. That is due in part, Gottfried said, to the expansive powers given to the governor in the state Constitution and in Section 29 of the state’s Executive Law. Gottfried echoed Goodell’s complaint that an hour-long briefing with Dr. Howard Zucker, state health commissioner, before the debate over A.9305 indicated there was no emergency and that the best thing New Yorkers could do at the time is to practice sound health practices like washing their hands. The Message of Necessity prevented anyone with expertise in the expansion of executive powers to voice opposition or to say the bill was indeed only making small technical changes.

“You might ask what does this bill do?” Gottfried asked. “It makes some changes that seem to be technical in those emergency powers, but it’s not entirely clear. One thing the bill very clearly does do which we’ve seen this governor push through before in recent years, what it does do is give the governor very extensive and almost unlimited affirmative legislative power to not only waive existing laws and provisions of existing laws, which he now has authority to do, but it also empowers him to essentially make new legislation by issuing ‘directives’ to any New Yorkers. I think it’s important to ask why. What problem does this bill solve? You might say, well we have this virus coming, but what does this bill enable a governor or a health commissioner to do that they can’t do today? We don’t have an answer to that question.”

Barron, a Brooklyn Democrat, was even more forceful in his opposition. He said the governor, particularly by using the Message of Necessity, was playing on the public’s fears of the coronavirus to pass legislation that could have drastic effects in the future. Barron said his district contains a large senior citizen population that is concerned about a pandemic or epidemic in a densely populated area. The seriousness of his constituent’s concerns led Barron to express displeasure with the tenor of debate on the Assembly floor. Barron said he would have preferred to see two pieces of legislation — one bill with the $40 million to expand coronavirus preparations and then another to change the governor’s emergency powers.

“When this issue came up I was looking for us to approach it very seriously without any political manipulation, without any manipulation by the governor to expand his power and authority,” Barron said. “Shame on you governor that you would use the fear of the people to expand your powers and shame on us because tonight, we’re going to allow him to do that.”

While Goodell is typically a voice in the Assembly for setting proper precedent, Barron took the Assembly to task Monday for not asking enough questions or showing enough backbone when it came to Cuomo’s requests. Barron said the Assembly’s acquiescence to the governor’s legislative language and Message of Necessity, as well as playing the governor’s office and state Senate against the Assembly to force action, is likely to come back to be a problem for the Assembly as state budget discussions heat up later this month.

“At some point during this lengthy budget process, at some point we have to take him on and say we will not be manipulated,” Barron said. “This is a precedence-starting session around the budget and I’m only fearful down the line we’re going to hear the same thing over and over and over again. If we don’t do this, the government will shut down. If we don’t do this, the other two, the governor and the Senate already did it, so if we don’t do it we’re going to look bad. It’s nothing but a PR game. How do we look? So we can’t get out there and say we’re not going to be manipulated by the governor, that we’re going to take a minute to think this thing through and do the right thing. Maybe we’ll appropriate $100 million Maybe that’s not enough. Maybe we’ll say that we’ll do something so that in these millions of dollars that some of the money trickles down to community health clinics, which it’s not going to do at this point. We have urgent care centers, we have community family health centers. That money’s not getting there, not by this. But they’ll take care of that later. They’ll work on that. We have to stand up at some point and say, ‘Governor, shame on you for trying to manipulate the Assembly, manipulate the Senate, and manipulate the fears of our people. This could turn out to be a very dangerous virus. That’s why we don’t have time to play games. We should check him right now and then get the experts in here right now so that we can resolve this in a very serious, serious manner.”

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