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‘A Troubling Trend’

Legislators Pick Task Force Bill As Forum For Gov. Grievances

By John Whittaker

jwhittaker@post-journal.com

Some legislators are taking a stand against what they perceive as the latest power grab by Gov. Andrew Cuomo.

The state Legislature approved, and Cuomo signed, A.9779/S.7589 during last year’s legislative session. That bill creates a recruitment and retention task force that includes relevant state agencies and designated associations representing volunteer firefighters to provide the governor and state Legislature with recommendations to assist in the recruitment and retention of volunteer firefighters.

But when Cuomo signed the bill he requested the legislature make a chapter amendment that would change the task force’s membership and mission. The state Assembly discussed those changes on Tuesday in debating A.968 — and many members weren’t happy.

Their unhappiness came not from the changes themselves, but what they perceived as the governor assuming more powers designated to the legislature. And the opposition didn’t break down along party lines, as a smattering of Democrats chose to oppose the governor’s move while a smattering of Republicans sided with Cuomo.

“I hope this is not the beginning of a new year of capitulating to the governor,” said Assemblyman Charles Barron, D-Brooklyn. “Regardless of where it comes from, which side of the floor, I think we have to stop capitulating to the governor. I am totally supportive of voluntary firepersons. This is an easy one. When we get chapter amendments when the governor wants to control more stuff and we end up watering down legislation and or disempowering ourselves, this is a bad way to start the new year off. If we start off like this I’m really, really concerned about what happens when it gets to bigger and extremely important things, not that firefighting isn’t important, it is extremely important, but when we get to the budget I’m just hopeful we won’t give him the power we gave him in last year’s budget.”

In the end, the legislature capitulated to Cuomo.

As originally created, the task force would include 14 members. One each would be appointed by the governor, state fire administrator, state education commissioner, SUNY chancellor, state taxation and finance commissioner, Fireman’s Association of the State of New York president, Association of Fire Districts president, state Association of Fire Chiefs president; state Fire Coordinators president, the Senate minority leader and the Assembly minority leader; and two members each appointed by the Speaker of the Assembly and president of the Senate.

Assemblyman Kevin Byrne, R-Mahopac, said he favored the original version of the bill. He said Cuomo already had enough influence on the commission without the nine new appointments and said the governor ended up with 10 appointments compared to five appointees by the state Legislature.

“I see this as a little bit of a troubling trend,” Byrne said.

“The majority has a super majority in both chambers. We have the ability to push back on some things, but we don’t need to give away everyhthing when we’re compromising with the governor. This is a relatively noncontroversial idea from the bill-in-chief, and I just think it’s giving too much power to the governor and the executive chamber. I highly prefer the bill-in-chief.”

Several Republicans agreed with Barron’s argument that the appointments gave too much power to Cuomo. Last March, state lawmakers passed a $40 million coronavirus relief bill that also allowed an expansion of Cuomo’s executive powers, allowing him to “suspend (specific provisions of) any statute, local law, ordinance, or orders, rules or regulations, of any agency.” Then, during budget deliberations, the legislature enacted a budget that allowed Cuomo similar powers to cut spending with little legislative oversight or withhold spending as he saw fit with no legislative oversight.

Assemblyman Andrew Goodell, R-Jamestown, said he would prefer the legislature choose to expand the commission’s membership as it sees fit rather than turning the majority of the appointments over to Cuomo.

“My concern is that I’m in agreement with Mr. Barron,” Goodell said. “That is, if we want to add more members to a legislative commission, we can do that without turning over the majority of appointments to the governor. I think we as a legislature are perfectly capable, maybe even more capable, to appoint members to a recruitment board that represents and references the wide diversity that we have across New York state. There are 150 of us in the Assembly plus our colleagues in the Senate, another 63. Collectively we know more about our individual districts than the governor, no matter how smart and well advised he is.”

Cuomo asked for nine appointments, taking the commission to 14 members. Assemblyman Fred Thiele, I-Sag Harbor, said members of his office consulted with volunteer fire department associations and said the firefighters had no objection to Cuomo’s proposed changes to the task force.

Republican Michael Fitzpatrick of Smithtown agreed with Thiele, and, while sharing concerns about expansion of the governor’s power didn’t think the volunteer firefighter recruitment and retention task force membership was an example of that.

“I don’t think this is one of them,” he said. “This is an opportunity to add more expertise from our fire service. If the governor is demanding more seats, he represents the entire state. I think a balance of expertise from across the state will be added to this task force and we desperately need to retain our firefighters and strengthen our volunteer force. That’s is why FASNY is supportive of this effort and I support it as well.”

Assemblyman Michael Lawler, R-Pearl River, is one of the newest members of the Assembly, serving his first month in the legislature. Lawler said that while he wasn’t in the Assembly to vote for the original version of the bill, he supports that legislation. He also sided with Barron.

“I think it is past due time for this legislative body to take back its rightful place as a coequal branch of government and to stop allowing this governor to take as much authority as he wants,” Lawler said. “I’m disappointed we would once again acquiesce to the whims and the will of this governor, who continues to show no ability to work with us as a coequal branch of government but rather use his power to take away the rightful power of this legislature.”

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