There are more than 300 COVID-related bills waiting to be voted on by lawmakers. In a wide-ranging interview with Spectrum News, Assembly Speaker Carl Heastie said the legislature will likely not reconvene in earnest until it’s known if the next federal stimulus package includes direct aid to New York State.
“I know people seem to be a little frustrated, but it’s kind of like we’re circling the airport till they tell us it’s safe to land.” said Heastie. “We’re looking at the bills, but again, it’s very very dependent on what the federal government is going to do for us.”
“I’m just asking people to for a little bit of patience,” he said. “We’re not just sitting on our hands.”
Criticism of the legislature’s relatively passive role in dealing with the pandemic has been growing louder, even from some of its own members.
“The emergency powers provided to the governor were always intended to be temporary,” Assembly Minority leader Will Barclay said in a statement. “As we see the COVID-19 threat begin to subside and we move in the direction of reopening New York, the time has come for state government to return to its basic principle of representative democracy.”
Speaker Heastie said the legislature has been part of the process every step of the way.
“We haven’t been inactive. Members have been conferencing. Members talk to me every day. They talk to the senior staff every day,” he said. But when it comes to passing bills, “we’re really just in a holding pattern to see what the federal government is going to do.”
Members are also fielding calls from beleaguered constituents.
“I know some people think working at home in your district is not your number one priority. I’d say, ‘say that to some of the families that are struggling who don’t have food on their table’,” said Heastie. “I would venture to say that is probably, at least for me in my district, that’s priority number one.”
Like Majority Leader Andrea Stewart Cousins, Speaker Heastie strongly disagrees with critics who claim the legislature has abdicated its power to Governor Cuomo.
‘I don’t feel like we ceded power to the Governor, per se,” he said. “Yes, we gave him the ability to give directives. But at any moment that the Governor gives an Executive Order, the legislature can pass a concurrent resolution to undo that Executive Order.”
Regarding the state’s dependency on federal aid: Estimates indicate the state has a budget gap that falls somewhere between $8 and $15 billion.
If federal money doesn’t materialize, there will be, what Heastie calls, “cuts to the bone.”
“For us, if the federal government doesn’t come through and give us that aid, I think the governor, Andrea and myself are going to have to look at different things, because we don’t want to accept these cuts. I also believe the Governor doesn’t want to do these cuts.”
When asked to be more specific, the Speaker said, “When I said ‘cut to the bone’, that’s what the governor put out there and said. That without getting state aid, you have to pretty much, cut certain places 20%. And that’s what I mean. 20% is a cut to the bone.”
The speaker painted a grim picture of what that would look like.
"It will be very difficult for us...having 20% percent cuts in aid to localities, education, healthcare. It’s just, I can’t imagine cuts this deep," he said.
The state’s budget director, Robert Mujica put it like this in the Enacted Budget: “The scope and depth of the reductions to local aid programs needed to balance the budget have no precedent in modern times”.
Mujica has unilateral power to reduce aid to school districts and localities mid-year if the state doesn’t meet projected revenues. The next revenue report is due from the State Comptroller’s office on Friday.
“If we don’t get any federal action, then the Governor has to put out a more detailed plan on how he plans to close this $8 billion dollar deficit,” said Heastie. “The legislature, and I think this is something else that has been lost, the legislature has 10 days to accept it, modify it, and start to look at other possibilities.”
No matter what plan is put into place, the governor’s or the legislature’s, it would likely include deep cuts.
Meanwhile, the next federal stimulus package is still be debated in Washington, and could be delayed by partisan fighting. Indeed, Heastie believes President Trump is playing politics with stimulus aid.
“If these were states that were important to President Trump’s electoral college he would be more open. But since it’s the Californias, the Illinois, the New Jerseys, the Connecticuts, the New Yorks, the states he knows he’s not going to win, I don’t think he feels pressed to do a revenue package.”
But even with federal aid, tax hikes are looking increasingly likely.
Governor Cuomo, who has repeatedly stated that raising taxes is not on his agenda, appears to be re-accessing the situation. A week ago, when asked if he would raise taxes on the wealthy, the Governor said simply, “I don’t know”.
And this past Friday, Mujica said he didn’t think there was “an appetite” for a dramatic increase in taxes on the wealthy. That is not the same thing as believing there is no appetite for a tax increase at all – something the Budget Director has stated in the past.
On Wednesday, joint legislative hearings will begin on two topics: how the virus has affected small businesses and minority communities.
When asked if the legislature will convene hearings on nursing homes where there have been over 5,000 deaths from COVID-19, the Speaker said it’s likely.
“I do think that there has to be an examination. The number, or the percentage of people who have died in nursing homes is totally disproportionate with the rest of the people. So I do think that there has to be some review,” he said.
On a personal note, Speaker Heastie acknowledged his summer plans are up in the air because of the virus and the toll it’s taking on children.
“It is very scary. You know, my daughter is in Maryland with her grandparents. Taylor usually spends the summer with me, and I’ve been talking to her mother where it might be better for her to stay in Maryland,” he said. “It’s heartbreaking to think about for those parents who have lost their young children. I know it would totally devastate me, beyond any thought process, so my heart just bleeds for the parents.”