ALBANY — A growing number of Democrats, Republicans and activists are speaking out against a suggestion by Gov. Andrew M. Cuomo that lawmakers could approve a state budget, amid a global pandemic, that includes controversial measures such as changing bail laws and legalizing marijuana.
The governor should follow his own advice about handling what needs to be done to get through the coronavirus pandemic and wait to deal with everything else later, they say.
Doing otherwise would be inappropriate — and undemocratic — they say.
“This is not the time to do this,” Sen. Gustavo Rivera (D-Bronx), chairman of the Senate Health Committee, said about the prospect of tackling the bail reform law while dealing with the economic fallout of the crisis. “This is both a public health and a moral issue. Let’s have this conversation after we get through the public health crisis.”
The state budget is due April 1.
Earlier this week, Cuomo, a Democrat, rankled lawmakers by saying there’s no reason they can’t enact a budget that also tackles bail, marijuana and other issues that aren’t essential to a spending plan.
Prior to his daily coronavirus briefing Wednesday, the governor said he’d met with a small group of district attorneys “talking about bail reform.”
The governor added the issue “will be concluded in the budget.”
Last year, Cuomo and the Democratic-controlled State Legislature eliminated bail for most misdemeanors and nonviolent felonies, which they said impacts about 90 percent of the cases in the state. They said they wanted to erase a “two-tiered justice system” in which rich defendants go free before jail but poor ones sit in jail, sometimes for months or years, under pressure to plea bargain.
But Senate Democrats, including six from Long Island, earlier this year proposed amending the newly minted law to add more crimes to the list for which someone can be remanded — such as all manslaughter counts — at a judge’s discretion, while ending the use of cash bail altogether.
That echoed a similar position Cuomo has advocated, though he hasn’t specifically endorsed the Senate proposal.
Some said they fear Cuomo, who has great leverage over legislators in crafting a state budget, will “jam them” by forcing them into an all-or-nothing vote on a budget bill that includes bail, marijuana, commercial surrogacy and other measures they see as unnecessary.
“What we should not be doing, under any circumstances, is jamming completely unrelated and highly controversial policy measures in place when all New Yorkers are appropriately focused on dealing with this crisis,” Senate Minority Leader John Flanagan (R-East Northport) said.
He noted the current “social distancing” guidelines have resulted in a ban on State Capitol visitors and reduced the number of lawmakers on hand to debate bills in person. Acting on controversial measures under a cloak of social distancing would be “undemocratic,” the Republican said.
“At a time when we are practicing social distancing, and when the CDC recommends people not congregate in groups larger than ten, it is undemocratic to slip policies into a budget that cannot be discussed by stakeholders who visit Albany or debated on the floor,” Flanagan said.
Assemb. Richard Gottfried (D-Manhattan) said officials are trying to win support for the changes the Senate and Cuomo want and offering to delay the effective date for six months because of the virus. He opposes the rollback and the rationale.
“They’re saying … ‘just postpone the rollback six months and it will be OK.’ No, it won’t be OK,” Gottfried said.