MY TURN: Sen. Tom O'Mara: 'Government by executive order remains unchecked'

N.Y. State Senator Tom O'Mara

One of the great challenges – not to mention dangers – as we approach a new year in state government is the ongoing temptation by New York’s governor to try to exercise power solely through executive order. 

N.Y. State Senator Tom O'Mara

One thing we should have learned from the prior Cuomo administration is that one-size-fits-all dictates and blanket mandates out of Albany to localities don’t work and, in fact, have caused great harm.   

Remember that under former Governor Andrew Cuomo, beginning in March 2020 at the onset of COVID-19, we witnessed an unleashing of state government by executive order like never before. He would end up utilizing at least 100 Executive Orders that allowed him to unilaterally change hundreds of state laws, as well as implement rules and regulations and make spending decisions, without legislative approval or local input. 

Any semblance of legislative checks and balances was abandoned. The same was true for local decision-making. We took to calling it “government by Cuomo executive order.” While it began at the start of the COVID-19 pandemic, when we were largely facing the complete unknown and there was a clear need to be able to quickly respond to rapidly changing conditions on the ground, then-Governor Cuomo just as quickly recognized that he could abuse these initial emergency powers and the Legislature’s Democrat majorities would be happy to let him get away with it.   

Consequently, he couldn’t resist the temptation to misuse what was supposed to be temporary, limited authority in order to try to steadily expand and tighten executive control.  

In other words, then-Governor Cuomo blatantly abused limited emergency powers, despite dozens upon dozens of attempts by the Senate and Assembly Republican conferences to try to get the Legislature’s Democrat supermajorities to bring it to an end. It became clear that many of Cuomo’s actions went well beyond the scope of the COVID-19 response and that he was going to go on sitting in Albany and dictating order after order without any regard for legislative checks and balances, or local input. 

It was a governor gone wild and, as we now know, it would end up causing a great deal of harm to local communities, economies, and taxpayers – damage that we’ll be trying to fix for years to come – not to mention the lost lives and the enduring pain and suffering for so many individuals, including the families whose loved ones died in nursing homes. 

Have we learned one of the fundamental lessons of this pandemic that government by executive order doesn’t work? It appears not, given Governor Kathy Hochul’s similar exercises in executive action, including mask mandates for children as young as two years old, mandatory vaccines for beleaguered health and home care workers compounding a preexisting workforce shortage, and the most recent attempt to reinstate a statewide mask mandate while clearly hinting that many more executive actions could be forthcoming.    

Consequently, once again, I will be putting forth legislation, on behalf of the Senate Republican conference, to rescind the authority for New York State agencies to automatically renew emergency regulations without the involvement of the Legislature. 

Again, one of the most damaging and egregious shortcomings of New York State’s pandemic response up to now has been the complete lack of local decision-making and legislative oversight. Former Governor Cuomo ignored it with devastating consequences. Unfortunately, current Governor Hochul refuses to recognize that government by executive order is bound to fail.   

We should learn our lessons. One size does not fit all throughout New York State. Moving forward, I believe our responses would be more reasonable, fair, and, especially, effective with greater input from our local public health professionals and leaders on the front lines, and that’s the purpose behind the legislation. Restore the necessary checks and balances, as well as a deliberative legislative process, before any emergency regulations can be renewed. 

Senate Republican Leader Rob Ortt says of the measure, “The recent statewide mask mandate declared by Governor Hochul is reminiscent of the heavy-handed approach of her predecessor. This directive was clearly announced without input from impacted communities and stakeholders and lacked any legislative oversight. Instead of Albany-knows-best directives, we should be empowering local officials to act in the best interest of their communities.” 

Currently, state law allows an emergency regulation to be in effect for 90 days, and it also allows state agencies to re-adopt and extend the regulation for periods of 60 days without any legislative input or approval. Our proposal would change existing law and curtail the power of state agencies by requiring them to obtain legislative approval for any extension of “emergency” regulations.  It would also reduce the duration of these extensions from 60 days to 30 days, with legislative approval.   

Governor Hochul’s latest mask mandate was forced on countless local governments and small businesses without their input or the input of their legislative representatives on whether they have the ability to implement and enforce the new regulation. 

It’s no way to govern and it needs to end. Governor Hochul shows no signs of hesitating to go on pushing the boundaries of executive authority and power.

New York State Senator Tom O'Mara represents the 58th District, which includes Yates, Steuben, Schuyler and Chemung counties and a portion of Tompkins County.