NY Governor Emergency Powers: What are they?

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SYRACUSE, N.Y. (WSYR-TV) — You may have heard that some state lawmakers, both Democrats and Republicans, are talking about stripping, or at least limiting the emergency powers granted New York Governor Andrew Cuomo at the start of the COVID-19 pandemic.

What exactly are the emergency powers granted to the governor?

The state government, like the federal government, has three branches; executive, legislative, and judicial. Each has its own clearly defined powers. The governor and local county, city, and town leaders have a set of emergency powers. For example, during a snowstorm, it is reported that a community has declared a state of emergency. What that does is give the government the power to restrict travel for safety reasons, to hire outside contractors or equipment without having to go through competitive bids, etc.

Under normal circumstances, a new law takes time to enact. It usually is reviewed by one or more committees in the Assembly and Senate. These committees often hold hearings, soliciting input from the public and the businesses and organizations which might be impacted by the law. If the committees approve, then it must pass in both houses. Once approved there, the governor has to sign it before it becomes law.

The governor already had the power to suspend some laws or regulations through executive orders. According to the office of State Senator John Mannion, the expanded powers granted in March of 2020 also gave the governor the power to issue affirmative directives. As Senator Manion’s office describes its things like shutting schools, restricting sports, creating the color-coded zones with different levels of restrictions.

When the legislature granted Cuomo those expanded powers, The Gothamist reported: “Though New York law already allows Cuomo to suspend provisions of any state or local statute that would delay in coping with a declared disaster, the new measure goes further, broadening the definition of disaster from a “past occurrence” to something that is “impending.” The new law specifically added “disease outbreak” to a list of triggering events alongside “epidemic,” and gives Cuomo new power to issue directives “necessary to cope with” a broad list of potential disasters, from tornados to cyberattacks to volcanic eruptions. 

The Gothamist added in its March 5, 2020 report: “Part of the challenge of understanding the expansion is the lack of specificity in the bill language. Since the governor already has expansive emergency powers, adding more could theoretically justify all kinds of maneuvers, like the declaration of martial law, unilateral travel restrictions, and mass quarantines.

The New York Times cited among the powers granted just two days after the first COVID-19 case was reported in New York: “The governor has since signed dozens of orders that have overridden laws and regulations his administration viewed as impeding its response to the public health crisis. He mandated business closures, established “microcluster” zones with different restrictions, imposed quarantine requirements on travelers and even changed the date of the presidential primary.

Some of these restrictions have been challenged in court. The state has prevailed in most of the cases.

The law enabling the expanded emergency powers expires April 30. It appears the legislature may move to remove those powers ahead of that expiration, perhaps as early as the week of February 21.

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