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NY Lawmakers Consider Remote Session Amid Pandemic

New York State Capitol

The New York Senate and Assembly were scheduled to return to the state Capitol on Monday to finish up the rest of the legislative session. But that schedule was made before the coronavirus hit. Lawmakers have no firm plans on when to return and that has government reform groups, and some lawmakers, calling for the holding of a remote session.

Lawmakers approved the state budget, one of their biggest tasks of the year, on April 3 and then adjourned. Governor Andrew Cuomo, speaking one day after the budget was approved, said the chances of the legislature coming back were slim.

“Is the session effectively over?” Cuomo asked. “It’s up to the legislature, but I think it’s effectively over.”

When legislators were meeting almost weekly in March, several became infected with corona virus. Those who became sick have either recovered or are still recovering.

The legislature granted the governor special powers to make changes to the budget to manage the state’s growing budget deficit on his own so lawmakers don’t need to come back to make mid-year adjustments. The governor says he’s disappointed that a measure to legalize recreational marijuana for adults failed, and that lawmakers did not have time to work out a package to protect gig economy workers. But he says they accomplished a lot under very trying circumstances, including making some changes to the state’s bail reform laws and banning flavored e-cigarettes.

“They did a phenomenal job,” Cuomo said.

In late March, the legislature approved a provision for individual senators and assembly members to vote remotely if they have concerns about becoming infected with the coronavirus.

Susan Lerner with the government reform group Common Cause says the technology exists for the entire legislature to meet remotely. She says schools are closed but students are still learning remotely and many employees, though barred from their work place for safety reasons, continue to work from home. She says lawmakers can do the same

“It is not a good look at all in an election year that our state legislators can’t find a way to do the people’s business,” Lerner said, “but yet are expecting that they will all be re-elected.”

Lerner says legislatures in some other states, like Pennsylvania, are holding committee meetings and voting on bills - all remotely.

Some lawmakers want to come back. They agree that there is a lot of unfinished business.

Senator Brad Hoylman would like to return to extend the provisions of the Child Victims Act. The law approved in 2019 opened a one year legal ‘window of opportunity’ for all past victims of childhood sexual abuse to sue their alleged abusers in civil court, even if the statute of limitations has passed.  Hoylman says the courts are now effectively closed, leaving victims with just six months to file their claims. He says the window needs to be extended for another year.  

“We promised survivors a full 12 months to have their day in court,” Hoylman said. “It’s just simply unfair and unjust to pull the rug out from under them.”

Others, including the Senate Deputy Majority Leader Mike Gianaris, would like to meet in session to approve a bill that would offer renters effected by COVID-19 a 90-day grace period for rent payments.

Senate Majority Leader Andrea Stewart-Cousins in an appearance on WNYC’s The Brian Lehrer Show says the legislature is not done for the year.

“We don’t see it as over,” she said on April 13. “There will be a continuation of the work that has to be done.”

Stewart-Cousins says she thinks the legislature will figure out a way to do it safely.

Karen DeWitt is Capitol Bureau chief for New York State Public Radio, a network of public radio stations in New York state. She has covered state government and politics for the network since 1990.
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