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Legislative efforts to strip Cuomo of pandemic powers gain steam

Assemblyman Ron Kim, D-Queens, speaks during a press

Assemblyman Ron Kim, D-Queens, speaks during a press briefing at the state Capitol in Albany, on June 8. Credit: AP/Hans Pennink

ALBANY — A move to curb Gov. Andrew M. Cuomo’s pandemic powers gained momentum following his public fight with an Assembly member and a Senate vow to take a vote on the issue next week, some legislators and officials said Thursday.

The Senate, which has been more vocal about taking back emergency powers the governor was granted last year, was drafting a bill to establish a bipartisan panel with the power to disapprove any Cuomo proposals. It planned to vote on the measure Monday or Tuesday.

The Assembly had been more hesitant to criticize the governor’s use of emergency powers to suspend or create laws to deal with the pandemic.

But the "playing field shifted" after Cuomo clashed with Assemb. Ron Kim (D-Flushing) on Wednesday. And now the Democrats who control the chamber moved up their usual Monday afternoon conference call by three hours, presumably to talk about the issue, members said.

"The Kim thing has outraged many members," one legislator said, asking not to be identified because the 105-member Democratic conference had yet to hash out the issue.

"I think there is a lot of support for reining it in," said another Assembly member.

Any bill the State Legislature approved could be vetoed by Cuomo. But with Democratic supermajorities in each house — and dozens of Republicans who oppose Cuomo — an override would be possible.

Meanwhile Thursday, Assembly Minority Leader Will Barclay (R-Pulaski) said he’d propose a resolution next week to form an impeachment commission to investigate the "state’s response to the COVID-19 pandemic in nursing homes."

It was one of several blowbacks the governor faced this week on the nursing home issue. Perhaps most importantly, the federal Department of Justice has launched a probe of the administration, officials confirmed.

On Wednesday, the governor, in a news conference about the pandemic, called Kim unethical and accused him of running a "racket" involving campaign contributions.

This came after the assemblyman was one of nine legislators to sign a letter accusing Cuomo of obstructing justice regarding a federal probe of the governor’s administration’s handling of nursing homes and COVID-19.

Kim later told news outlets Cuomo called him days earlier and threatened to "destroy" his career. Cuomo aide Rich Azzopardi, who said he listened on the call, said Kim was lying.

The Legislature’s unrest about Cuomo’s extraordinary powers has been building. It gained momentum after the administration acknowledged it had withheld information from legislators for six months about the number of nursing home residents who had died, or were suspected of dying, from COVID-19.

The governor Monday said his emergency powers had "nothing to do" with nursing homes. And his aides have pointed out the Legislature always had the power to vote to override Cuomo directives. But still, the nursing home admission further infuriated some legislators who had been calling for change.

Under terms granted Cuomo last March, he has the ability not only to suspend laws (which other governors have had) but also to create new laws and directives. Cuomo said they were needed to react to a rapidly evolving pandemic.

Those powers are set to be renewed or expire April 30.

Now, legislators might act sooner.

"I think everyone understands where we were back in March and where we are now," Senate Majority Leader Andrea Stewart-Cousins (D-Yonkers) said Wednesday. "We certainly see the need for a quick response but also want to move toward a system of increased oversight and review."

Under a bill being drafted by the Senate, the Legislature would set up a 10-person bipartisan review panel. The Democrats, who hold more than two-thirds of the seats in each house, would appoint eight, Republicans two.

Any new law Cuomo wanted would have to be approved by the panel. The panel would have to disapprove any law he wanted suspended or else the suspension would take effect.

The panel would have to act within 24 hours if the issue at hand was a new law and the governor requested emergency action. In all other cases, the panel would have 72 hours.

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