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NYS Legislature Convenes To Debate COVID-19 Bills

New York State Capitol
Karen DeWitt

New York state lawmakers returned to session this week, with plans to vote on bills aimed at helping New Yorkers cope with the changes caused by the COVID-19 pandemic.

The Assembly and Senate began by convening committee meetings for the first time in several weeks. 

But unlike the crowded rooms of the past that were full of staffers, lobbyists, and journalists, the gatherings were mostly done remotely. 

Assembly committees shared a feed to hold a succession of meetings, providing audio, but not video, of the proceedings. 

Assembly Education Committee Chair Michael Benedetto described the one bill on the agenda, sponsored by Assemblyman Felix Ortiz. It would not punish school districts with a cut in state aid when they closed their schools in March due to the virus. 

The measure passed unanimously, with none of the traditional spirited discussions between majority Democrats and minority party Republicans. 

“I am seeing no hands up right now to be against the bill,” Benedetto said as he took roll for the vote.

In the Senate, the Chair and ranking minority member of each committee met in person in a conference room in the Capitol outfitted with a webcam. Three other people were permitted in the room; the committee clerk and two staff members. All wore masks.  

Senate Judiciary Committee Chair Brad Hoylman’s agenda included a measure to extend the one-year lookback window for survivors of child sexual abuse to pursue civil lawsuits against their alleged abusers.

The current time frame was to expire in mid-August, but with the courts having been essentially shut down since March, Governor Andrew Cuomo earlier issued an executive order extending the window until mid-January.

The legislative measure would extend the window for a second year. Hoylman says several other states allow victims who have passed the statute of limitations a longer period to file civil lawsuits. 

“Not only are we recognizing COVID-19 and the disruption it has caused to adult survivors and their ability to file claims, but we are also following the lead of other states that have added multi-year windows,” Hoylman said.  

The committee also approved a measure to extend a prohibition on evictions for nonpayment of rent, if the tenant is economically affected by the coronavirus. There have been long delays in some cases for laid off New Yorkers obtaining unemployment insurance checks, due to the large volume of applicants that has overwhelmed the state’s system. The measure would allow delayed unemployment checks as a reason for missed rent payments.  

A related bill would provide up to $100 million in vouchers for landlords whose tenants are unable to meet their rent payments between April and July.  

Other bills being considered include a moratorium on tax foreclosures, and options for deferring the payment of some business taxes. Pharmacists would be authorized to offer the COVID-19 vaccine, when there is one. And long-term care facilities, including nursing homes, would be required to come up with a pandemic plan. The virus has taken a tremendous toll on nursing home patients.    

Lawmakers do not plan, for now, to address one of the state’s biggest challenges, the $13 billion budget deficit. Cuomo says without additional aid from Washington soon, he’ll have to slash aid to schools and local governments by $8 billion. 

“With no money from the federal government, schools get cut 20% local government gets cut 20% and hospitals get (cut) 20%,” Cuomo said earlier this week. 

Once the governor comes up with a budget cutting plan, the legislature would have 10 days to amend or accept it. Cuomo says he’s not laying out his proposal now because he is still hopeful that federal aid will come through.

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