The six month-long legislative session in Albany concluded more or less as scheduled in the early hours of Friday morning, but state lawmakers have finished their work with an uncertain future ahead.
But then again, nothing was all that certain this year in Albany, as Gov. Andrew Cuomo faced months of growing controversy, calls for him to resign amid allegations of sexual harassment and now the pending developments of multiple investigations, including a federal probe into his administration’s reporting of nursing home deaths.
The story of state government, Cuomo and a Legislature dominated by Democrats played out on three screens this year.
On screen one: The management of a deadly, year-long pandemic continued as a vaccine rolled out to New Yorkers slowly and then suddenly. More businesses and public gathering spaces are reopening. Mask wearing rules for the fully vaccinated are being relaxed; vacations are being planned. Life is returning to some semblance of normal.
On screen two, Democratic supermajorities in the state Assembly and Senate asserted their influence over Albany, approving a sweeping state budget plan in April that sharply increased spending for schools and programs designed to help those financially struggling amid the pandemic. Cannabis has been legalized, and a system to regulate and tax the products will be put in place over the coming months.
And finally, screen three: The governor is facing mounting allegations of sexual harassment and misconduct. His administration has been accused of under-counting the deaths of nursing home residents during the COVID-19 pandemic and where those residents died. His contract to write a book about the pandemic was worth $5.1 million, while government aides were used to write the book, he says on a voluntary basis. Last year, as most New Yorkers struggled to get access to COVID tests, his family members and those close to the administration were able to get them, with the State Police acting as couriers for the samples.
In all instances, Cuomo has denied any wrongdoing, and insists the reports have been distorted by the media.
Polling has shown New Yorkers have soured on Cuomo compared to the stratospheric numbers he enjoyed during the early days of the pandemic. But a tipping point of voters backing calls for Cuomo to step aside is yet to be reached.
Questions continue over what news the investigations will bring. What will Attorney General Letitia James’ report on allegations of sexual harassment and misconduct find? Which direction will the federal government’s investigation into the counting of COVID fatalities among nursing home and long-term care facility residents take? And what will lawmakers do once they have concrete information in their hands?
“We are 100% ready to come back,” Senate Minority Leader Robert Ortt told reporters Thursday afternoon when asked if Republicans were ready to come back for an impeachment trial in the chamber. “In fact, we talked about that in our conference just now.”
Hours later, lawmakers wrapped up work without taking up a final version of a high-profile criminal justice proposal that would seal many criminal records advocates have said hurt job prospects for those who have paid their debt to society. And lawmakers refused to finalize a restructure of the Metropolitan Transportation Authority that Cuomo sought in the final days amid concerns the governor was further attempting to consolidate his power over the sprawling transit bureaucracy.
Lawmakers largely moved to confirm Cuomo’s appointees this week, his only stated goal for the end of the session. Cuomo secured the confirmation of two new judges to the state Court of Appeals, New York’s highest court.
Those confirmations included Madeline Singas over the objections of some progressive lawmakers who criticized her work as a prosecutor. Former Cuomo aide John Maggiore was confirmed to the state Public Service Commission, a key utility regulator as well as former Sen. David Valesky, a former member of the defunct Independent Democratic Conference. Richard Kauffman was confirmed for the New York State Research and Energy Development Authority as concerns over financial conflicts of interest were turned aside.
Further confirmations could come later this month if Cuomo gets his preferred restructuring of the MTA leadership posts.
But Cuomo, who is facing calls for resignation from prominent Democrats including the state’s two U.S. senators, most of the House delegation and many members of the Legislature, is far from being a pariah in Albany. Lawmakers are still meeting with him privately and appearing with him in public.
It’s hard to see the legislative session concluding any other way. Cuomo had publicly stated this week most of his priorities were accomplished months ago, when the Legislature approved a $212 billion budget and the legalization of cannabis products for adults.
His key concern, he said, was ensuring his appointments get through confirmation.
Cuomo has not been a public presence in New York’s half-filled Capitol building, though he continued to exact leverage over lawmakers.
Ortt accused Democratic lawmakers in Albany of “normalizing” Cuomo in the final months of the legislative session, largely granting what he wanted as an impeachment investigation dragged along and appearing with him in public.
Senate Majority Leader Andrea Stewart-Cousins was the most prominent Democrat to appear alongside the governor earlier this spring at a mass vaccination site in her Yonkers district.
“I was happy to be there because it let my neighbors know, mostly Black and Brown neighbors who you know who have been so disproportionately affected, to please come,” she told reporters on Thursday evening. “When it comes to life and death like vaccines and making sure my community knows they’re protected, that’s my position.”
Republicans have insisted the one tangible step to give Cuomo some consequences in the last six months — a scaling back of his emergency powers — has simply not gone far enough. Re-asserting some of that power, Assembly Minority Leader Will Barclay said, is needed.
“As we head into the summer months, we will work diligently to restore the Legislature to its rightful place as a co-equal branch of New York state government. Enough is enough – the state of emergency must come to an end and we must restore order to fully advance our recovery,” Barclay said. “The time is now.”