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Common Cause NY Wants Session To Resume Remotely

New York state Capitol
Jim Levulis

The group Common Cause is pushing the New York State legislature to resume its regular session remotely, as the COVID-19 outbreak has made convening at the capitol in Albany nearly impossible.

Lawmakers were in Albany to pass an austere budget as the new fiscal year began April 1st. They basically haven’t been back since.

Common Cause NY held a conference call with reporters Wednesday afternoon. The group’s executive director Susan Lerner wants the state legislature, which is currently on break, to return to Albany, even if remotely, to finish out the regular session that was supposed to run through early June.

“The legislature has the technology to remain in remote session and tackle these issues out in public through virtual, remote technologies. Lawmakers just need to use it,” said Lerner.

In late March up against a state budget deadline, the Senate and Assembly adopted new rules regarding remote voting.

But with the COVID-19 crisis taking priority, many big ticket items, such as legalizing adult-use marijuana, were left out of the state budget. Common Cause wants the legislature to codify an Executive Order from Governor Cuomo to allow voting-by-mail in the June 23rd primary, and to extend New York’s early voting period to 18 days.

“We run the risk of disenfranchising hundreds of thousands who may not be able to get to the polls in the future. This can’t happen,” said Lerner.

On April 4th, Governor Cuomo expressed some doubt over the future of the legislative session. He spoke to reporters during a daily coronavirus press conference.

“Is the session effectively over? You know, it’s up to the legislature. But I think it’s fair to say it’s effectively over. They have a number of people infected. And they did a phenomenal job working through all those policy issues and all those budget issues. So I think it’s effectively over,” said Cuomo.  

In a statement following Cuomo’s remarks that day, Democratic Assembly speaker Carl Heastie referenced the remote voting system created in late March and used to pass the state budget.

“As always, the Assembly stands ready to protect and provide for the well-being of all New Yorkers,” said Heastie.

Heastie added that the Assembly session was in recess at the call of the speaker.

State Senate Democratic Majority Leader Andrea Stewart-Cousins also addressed the topic during a recent appearance on WNYC.

“Certainly we don’t see it as over. And we know that there will be a  continuation of the work that has to be done not only around COVID but around other things that come up, so we have figured out a way to do it,” said Stewart-Cousins.

Democratic State Assemblywoman Deborah Glick of New York City, who joined Lerner on Wednesday’s call, said while legislators are on break, they are currently assisting their constituents with matters related to the coronavirus pandemic. She says she and her New York City colleagues are in daily communication with the governor’s office.

Glick said she is also paying close attention to the governor’s plans to re-open the state, which have been characterized as gradual.

“I was heartened by the governor’s conversation today about how we might begin to think about getting back to a quasi-normal situation, which, I think, would allow for us to actually be physically be in session at some point. But I’m hopeful that within the next week we’ll have more discussions,” said Glick.

Governor Cuomo has called for a regional approach to re-opening schools and businesses with neighboring states, and had repeatedly mentioned the need for more and improved testing methods, including antibody testing, before people can be allowed back to work.

The capitol remains closed to visitors.  

Lucas Willard is a reporter and host at WAMC Northeast Public Radio, which he joined in 2011.
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