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NY lawmakers pass bill to limit Cuomo’s executive power

March 6, 2021 GMT
New York Gov. Andrew Cuomo speaks during a press conference before the opening of a mass COVID-19 vaccination site in the Queens borough of New York, Wednesday, Feb. 24, 2021. This FEMA run site, along with another in Brooklyn, gives priority to local residents in an effort to equitably distribute the vaccine. (AP Photo/Seth Wenig, Pool)
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New York Gov. Andrew Cuomo speaks during a press conference before the opening of a mass COVID-19 vaccination site in the Queens borough of New York, Wednesday, Feb. 24, 2021. This FEMA run site, along with another in Brooklyn, gives priority to local residents in an effort to equitably distribute the vaccine. (AP Photo/Seth Wenig, Pool)
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New York Gov. Andrew Cuomo speaks during a press conference before the opening of a mass COVID-19 vaccination site in the Queens borough of New York, Wednesday, Feb. 24, 2021. This FEMA run site, along with another in Brooklyn, gives priority to local residents in an effort to equitably distribute the vaccine. (AP Photo/Seth Wenig, Pool)

ALBANY, N.Y. (AP) — The New York Legislature has passed a bill to limit Gov. Andrew Cuomo’s emergency powers at a time when he’s facing sexual harassment allegations and scrutiny over his administration’s reporting of deadly COVID-19 outbreaks at nursing homes.

Democrats who have expressed disappointment in the governor in recent days have trumpeted the bill as a “repeal” of Cuomo’s emergency powers. Those powers are set to sunset at the end of April when the state of emergency ends, unless the Legislature acts to end it sooner.

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The Senate and Assembly passed the bill in party-line votes of 43 to 20 and 107 to 43. It has been sent to the governor, who has said he supports it.

Any governor in New York has the power to suspend laws in a state of emergency, but last spring, lawmakers approved Cuomo’s request for additional authority to pass sweeping mandates unilaterally. Republicans have long opposed the additional powers.

Under the new legislation, the governor would no longer have the power to pass new mandates.

But it would allow the governor to extend or amend dozens of his ongoing COVID-19 mandates, which include limits for restaurant capacity, eligibility rules for vaccinations, the number of vaccine locations, gathering limits, social distancing rules, testing, quarantine rules and air quality or filtration requirements.

His power to extend or amend the mandates would expire once the state of emergency is lifted in April, or sooner if the Legislature chose to do so.

Senate Deputy Majority Leader Mike Gianaris defended the bill for ensuring that the mask mandate, for example, is still in effect. He said Cuomo couldn’t keep alive directives unrelated to reducing COVID-19 spread and administering vaccines, though it’s unclear whether Cuomo and lawmakers will agree on where to draw that line.

“Maybe my colleagues would prefer if all that went away and we just become Texas, where the governor declared there’s no more restrictions and everything,” Gianaris said. “That’s not what anyone wants ... so we’re being responsible.”

Republicans, who are pushing to impeach the governor and want a full repeal of his powers, said the governor’s alleged conduct has proven he’s not fit to wield emergency powers. They criticized the bill for lacking teeth and allowing Cuomo to extend COVID-19 mandates indefinitely, until the state of emergency is over.

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“Why are we continuing to trust this man to make decisions that are in the best interests of this state?” Sen. Anthony Palumbo, a Republican, said.

If the governor signs the bill, he could only extend existing COVID-19 mandates for 30 days and would have to notify lawmakers five days before and offer lawmakers and local governments a chance to respond. Cuomo couldn’t extend or tweak a directive more than once unless he has “responded” to comments, though Republicans criticized the bill for leaving unclear what exactly would count as a response.

Cuomo can bypass that five day notification requirement if he says it’s needed to avoid an “imminent threat to public health or safety.” He would still have to provide some opportunity for comment.

The bill also got support from a small but growing number of left-leaning Democrats who have joined calls for Cuomo to resign.

“To be clear, this bill falls short of a full repeal of the governor’s expanded powers,” said Sen. Alessandra Biaggi, who said she believes it’s in New Yorkers’ best interest “to end the governor’s ability to issue new directives.”

Top Democratic leaders have stressed they want to wait for the results of the attorney general’s investigation into Cuomo’s harassment allegations, and whether his administration investigated sexual harassment complaints, before taking steps to hold him accountable.

It’s unclear what discipline Cuomo could face if the investigation confirms the accounts of three women who accused him of inappropriate touching and sexually suggestive remarks. Cuomo has said he never intended to make anyone feel uncomfortable, acknowledged he has a habit of kissing people’s faces and denied any inappropriate touching.

An impeachment would need to start in the Assembly. But Assembly Majority Leader Crystal Peoples-Stokes told The Associated Press Friday that she doesn’t believe the alleged conduct is an impeachable offense under the state Constitution and so impeachment is off the table.

Meanwhile, Senate Leader Andrea Stewart-Cousins said Thursday evening in a televised interview: “If any further people come forward, I would think it would be time for him to resign.”

In a Wednesday press conference, Cuomo claimed he negotiated the bill with the Senate and Assembly.

But Gianaris and Assembly Speaker Carl Heastie have both said that was false.

“The governor lied,” Gianaris said Friday.