It is time for the public to learn the whole truth about New York State’s response to the COVID-19 emergency. We urge Senate leader Andrea Stewart-Cousins and Speaker Carl Heastie to restore the legislature’s status as a co-equal branch of government and fully exercise their legislative oversight powers.
We ask the leaders to hold COVID-19 response oversight hearings outside of the regular budget hearings to reveal to the public all information the state has on COVID-19 deaths, infections, testing, vaccination, emergency procurements and full details of budget withholdings, cuts and other diversions of funds. Given the extraordinary revelations of the last few days, we further ask the legislature to ensure (1) the whole truth is presented; (2) top policy makers from the Cuomo administration are compelled to testify under oath; and (3) budget and policy documents are subpoenaed and provided completely.
Today we read with dismay the Cuomo administration’s admission that it deliberately withheld data on COVID-19 nursing home deaths from the public, the legislature, and the federal government. The Cuomo administration also refused to comply with a watchdog group’s Freedom of Information Law (FOIL) request for this same data until a judge ordered disclosure.
We note that the legislature has received “withholding notifications” for less than a quarter of all the funding withheld under last year’s COVID emergency budget process. State records FOILed from the State Assembly show that in 2020, the Division of the Budget (DOB) notified the legislature of about $700 million in specific withholdings, compared to a total of $3.1 billion in withholdings from DOB’s Executive Budget financial plan. The transparency provided by these notifications was the cornerstone of last year’s emergency budget agreement. Under that deal, the legislature granted the governor extraordinary power to “withhold” state funding, with the condition that the governor had to disclose the withholdings and eventual cuts, and give the legislature the option to reject them and propose alternatives.
Without these notifications, the legislature and public do not know how much the governor’s office has taken from funding appropriated to agencies, authorities, local governments, and specific programs. This means that the legislature and public cannot verify that COVID budget impacts have been shared equally by all stakeholders.