In one of the first direct challenges from a member of the Legislature’s Democratic majority to Governor Andrew Cuomo, Senator Liz Krueger (D-Manhattan), Chair of the powerful Senate Finance Committee, sent Capital Tonight an emailed statement labeling the findings in the Attorney General’s nursing home report "an intentional underreporting of deaths" and calling on the Legislature to begin oversight hearings.
The Senator also says she wants to “re-evaluate the continued use of such broad emergency powers by the Executive.”
Here is Senator Krueger’s statement in full.
"Throughout the pandemic I have urged everyone to follow the science, ignore the politics, and recognize that government would make mistakes, because these were huge, new issues we were confronting. The real test would be how quickly we recognized mistakes and fixed them.
Over the course of the last year I have stood by the Legislature's decision to give the Governor extraordinary emergency powers because I believed rapid decisions would have to be made on behalf of the people of our state.
Unfortunately, based on discoveries from the last few days regarding the intentional underreporting of deaths of nursing home residents throughout the state and the mass exodus of the state's public health experts from their jobs, I believe the legislature should conduct oversight hearings and re-evaluate the continued use of such broad emergency powers by the Executive."
In response, the Governor’s spokesman Rich Azzopardi sent Capital Tonight a statement, saying, "The governor's executive power is very limited. Any executive order by the Governor can be easily over ridden by a simple majority of the legislature.”
The statement from the Governor’s office also appears to link the Senator’s criticism of the Governor with a separate disagreement she has over the Cuomo Administration’s decision to reopen restaurants in New York City:
“We understand that the Senator believes restaurants should have indoor dining closed. The Senator has the luxury of financial security BUT many people need to work to support themselves and their families. We cannot be blind to (the) economic realities of the thousands of restaurant workers and their families.”
Azzopardi goes on to suggest the legislature override the Governor’s executive order on indoor dining: “That is their prerogative. Any executive order is immediately null and void with a simple majority vote,” he wrote.
The Governor’s emergency powers were granted to him in March of last year by the legislature. The powers extend through April of this year. They have enabled the administration to be nimble in the face of the pandemic and subsequent economic turmoil.
Critics say the Governor fumbled several decisions, including the March 25 guidance by the state Department of Health that mandated COVID patients released from hospitals be allowed to return to nursing homes.
In response to Senator Krueger’s comments about the “mass exodus of the state's public health experts from their jobs”, which is a reference to a story in The New York Times from earlier this week, Health Commissioner Dr. Howard Zucker sent the following statement:
"Since the beginning of COVID, I’ve been intimately involved in the decision making around all aspects of our response, and in virtually every briefing. Anyone who knows anything about this pandemic knows that much of this challenge involves an unprecedented operational and coordination capacity and that's why the federal and state public health agencies are coupled with military and logistical agencies to execute it.
"This is not a time for business as usual—it's a time to battle the virus and my team knows that. It is also an intense period of extraordinary stress and pressure and a different job than some signed onto. The Times’ point is several staff left; true and many others joined the agency with the talents necessary to confront this new challenge. What was the result? It is factual and inarguable that the 4,500 DOH employees faced a challenge greater than any other state and went from the highest infection rate in the nation to one of the lowest when we had more cases in this state than any country on the globe; the proof is in the performance numbers and definitively answers the Times’ theoretical speculation."