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Blair Horner: The Legislature Wraps Up The 2021 Session

Lawmakers wrapped up the 2021 legislative session last week.  In some ways, the session was unlike others.  For the entire January to June session the Capitol and the Legislative Office buildings were closed to the public.  Lawmakers did not have to be in Albany in order to vote.

But in other ways, the session was more like ones the occurred pre-pandemic.  The 2021 session saw a total of 892 bills pass, just shy of the 935 bills that passed in 2019 – and dramatically unlike last year’s passage of only 414 bills.

And like sessions of the past, a huge number of bills that were approved by the Legislature came during the final week:  461 of the 892 bills were approved last week. 

That return to some version of “typical” does not mean that the session was any more substantive.  Important issues were approved, for example, there will be five constitutional amendments on the ballot this November for voters to consider.  Two of those amendments will make voting easier – one eliminates the current requirement that voters need an excuse to obtain a mail-in ballot.  If approved by a majority of New Yorkers casting votes on the proposal that amendment will change the state Constitution to allow any voter to obtain a mail-in ballot merely by asking for one.

Another constitutional change would allow for new voters to register and vote on Election Day instead of the current blackout period that prohibits voters from registering within 10 days of Election Day.  

In the area of the environment, the Legislature approved a bill to require that the state establish regulations for some persistent toxic contaminants in drinking water supplies but did little when it came to tackling climate change.

One notable issue that lawmakers punted on was a bill that would have placed a moratorium on energy-intensive “cryptomining” in New York State.

Cryptomining is a relatively new technology that provides the basis for cryptocurrency.  Cryptocurrencies such as Bitcoin are virtual currencies, which means they exist only online and there are no physical notes and coins.  Cryptocurrencies do not belong to a central bank, meaning they have no government backing.  They are international currencies and can be used to send money around the world without any identity checks, making them a popular choice for cybercriminals. 

These digital currencies require authentication to prevent fraudulent transactions.  One important way in which authentication occurs requires that the transaction be approved using a complex mathematical equation.  For the transaction to go through, crypto “miners” compete to solve the mathematical equation.  The first one to solve an equation authenticates the transaction and wins currency for their effort.

While it sounds like a science-fiction system, it is in use today.  The climate change component of this is that to solve these mathematical equations and to win the currency for their effort, these “miners” need incredible amounts of electricity to run their computers.  And the cheaper the source of power, the less overhead, and the larger the profit.

Crypotminers in New York are now considering turning on old fossil fuel energy plants to power their activities.  Firing up these old plants is cheaper yet contributes significantly to the amount of greenhouse gas emissions – at precisely the time that the world’s climate experts are arguing that we need to cut back.

The legislation would have put a hold on permitting the use of these mothballed plants until the state understood the climate (and freshwater) impacts.  The legislation was blocked in the Assembly.

While that is an example of an important bill that was waylaid by lobbyists, the number of bills passed in 2021 documents that one-party control has reversed an overall historical trend:  Since seizing control of the Senate, the Democratic majorities in both legislative houses have increased approval of legislation, reversing the previous decade’s overall decline and at the highest amounts over the past two decades (other than last year’s pandemic session).

Yet quantity is not necessarily quality.  The threat posed by the global warming resulting from the burning of oil, gas, and coal is an existential one.  It deserves attention.  No matter how seemingly productive lawmakers were, their collective failure to tackle climate threats outweighs by far the improvement in the number of bills passed.

Blair Horner is executive director of the New York Public Interest Research Group.

The views expressed by commentators are solely those of the authors.They do not necessarily reflect the views of this station or its management.

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