Blair Horner: The 2021 Legislative Session Begins | WAMC

Blair Horner: The 2021 Legislative Session Begins

Jan 4, 2021

New York State lawmakers are scheduled to reconvene this week to start a new two-year legislative session.  The state Constitution is clear about the opening of the Legislature, that it must start meeting on the “first Wednesday after the first Monday in January.”

Usually, the opening of the Legislature coincides with the delivery of the governor’s State of the State message.  That message is also required under the state Constitution, “The governor shall communicate by message to the legislature at every session the condition of the state, and recommend such matters to it as he or she shall judge expedient.”  However, the date of that message is not set and the current governor, Andrew Cuomo, has not always delivered his message on the first legislative day and has said that his 2021 message will be delivered January 11th.  Technically it doesn’t have to be given in an oral presentation, but that has become the custom.

The Legislature is scheduled to convene on January 6 and adjourn on June 18.

There are, of course, huge differences between this session and previous ones.  Most obvious is that fact that lawmakers will convene during a pandemic – and that situation has dramatically changed the nature of the session.  Instead of being physically present at the state Capitol for its proceedings, lawmakers will “meet” through remote Internet-based platforms.

In addition, both houses of the Legislature will have Democratic “super-majorities.”  A “super-majority” allows the Democrats who dominate both houses to – at least theoretically – overturn a gubernatorial veto without needing to make a deal with the minority party. 

Democrats won a 43-20 majority in the Senate and will maintain a majority in the Assembly (with 107 of 150 members of the Majority conference).  At the start of the 2021 session, New York is one of 22 state legislatures where one party has a veto-proof supermajority in both chambers.

Governor Cuomo and state lawmakers will have to grapple with big issues this session.  The biggest of all will be figuring out how to close the state’s yawning budget gap.

Even though the state has a large budget – last year over $175 billion – much of it is required spending, spending that leaves little room to make changes.  The massive current deficit, as well as those looming over the next few years, will require dramatic actions.

The state’s strategy to date has been to hope for federal help, which has not materialized.  That hope continues with a new Biden Administration being sworn in later this month.  But the timing could be a problem.  New York’s budget must be in place by April 1st and the Biden Administration may not have negotiated a new stimulus package by then (or ever).  The governor has said the state is looking at tax increases, revenue raisers, layoffs, borrowing and early retirements, but has not provided further details.

Even with federal assistance, it is likely that the state will have to deal with budget deficits.  Moreover, the COVID-19 pandemic continues to rage and will depress economic activity and may require the state to shut down and restrict business activities even further.

That and literally hundreds of issues – large and small – will be addressed during the next six months of the legislative session.  The first big decision lawmakers must make is to decide on their own procedural rules.  At the beginning of every two-year legislative term, lawmakers must approve legislative rules that determine how policy changes get made.

And given the fact that this will be the first full session in which lawmakers will operate remotely, those rules matter even more.  A coalition of civic groups have urged lawmakers to amend their rules to allow for greater public participation and accountability. 

In a letter to the legislative leaders, the groups noted that while lawmakers have operated remotely since last spring, “public access to the halls of government is literally prohibited; and just as lawmakers are finding new ways to do business, members of the public are looking for ways to engage with them.”

The groups further noted that “Public confidence in government is even more important when lawmakers are out of sight.  Work behind closed doors undermines public confidence and breeds public cynicism and apathy.  Public distrust of the legislative process erodes democracy.”

The groups urged measures to help bridge the “digital divide,” to ensure the public has both Internet-based and phone access to proceedings, to provide that participating lawmakers in meetings are visible to the public, as well as other measures to further open proceedings. 

The groups also noted the need for rules changes to further empower rank-and-file members of the Legislature and to ensure fairness in the allocation of resources to all members, including those in the minority parties.

This week a new session for our state legislative body begins.  In many ways, the session will seem like all others – public fights, secret negotiations, hundreds of bills passed.  In key ways – most notably the pandemic – the session will be unprecedented.  And that offers lawmakers a unique opportunity for re-imaging how they do their work.  Let’s hope that they decide to take steps toward more openness.  If they do, the pandemic will offer a small silver lining: greater transparency and trust in government.

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

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