The on again, off again 2020 legislative session wrapped up last week, concluding with a flurry of activity. While the big issue – what to do about New York’s cratering finances – was ignored, last week saw significant legislative activity on a wide range of issues. The issue of the state’s finances will likely emerge in weeks or months to come.
Lawmakers’ productivity – at least in terms of approving legislation – surpassed the previous six months. Two hundred twenty bills passed both houses in four days of legislative activity. A bit less than two hundred had passed for the period of January through the end of June.
In many ways it was a typical legislative session during which the majority of bills get approved during the last week of session. But the 2020 tally-to-date is still only about half as many bills passed as in typical year. In a normal legislative session, 600 to 900 bills are approved by both the Assembly and Senate. This year, just over 400 bills have passed so far, the lowest amount in a quarter of a century.
Of course, there’s a big reason – the COVID-19 pandemic. The impacts of the pandemic are felt not only in “productivity,” but also in how legislation was approved. Lawmakers met remotely, with a sprinkling of lawmakers in the legislative chambers, others in their offices in the Capitol, in their districts or at home. In contrast to business as usual, there were no lobbyists or members of the public physically present for the proceedings. Yet, bills were passed.
Some big ones were in the area of voting rights.
New York State will soon implement an automatic voter registration system, if the bill is approved by the governor. The bill adds an automated voter registration section to state agencies’ intake forms in a way similar to the process currently used by the Department of Motor Vehicles. The AVR bill, as it’s called, specifically designates the Department of Motor Vehicles (DMV), Department of Health (DOH), the Office of Temporary and Disability Assistance (OTDA); Department of Labor (DOL); Office of Vocational and Educational Services for Individuals with Disabilities; County and City Departments of Social Services, and the New York City Housing Authority (NYCHA), as agencies participating in AVR. The bill also requires that the governor annually review state agency activities to recommend expansion of the program. Assuming the program tracks the experience in other states, this should dramatically expand the number of registered New Yorkers.
Absentee voting was expanded in two ways. The first bill addressed easy access to absentee ballots for the upcoming 2020 General Election and the second established a process for voters to fix errors in such ballots.
In the area of early voting, an additional protection was added. Under the current law, local boards of elections are given discretion in the number of early voting sites to be set up and where they will be located. However, in doing so, these boards can – and often do – fail to provide early voting poll sites in the urban areas of small cities. In the county of Rensselaer, the City of Troy (population is about 50,000) had no early voting locations in its boundaries in the 2019 election. This bill requires that such municipalities would be required to offer early voting locations.
Several environmental bills were approved; one that banned disposal of unsafe fracking waste at landfills; one that banned the use of trichloroethylene, a widely used as an industrial solvent. The chemical is highly volatile, and has polluted air, groundwater, and food.
If approved by the governor, the sale of glyphosate would be banned. It is an herbicide that is designed to kill broadleaf plants and grasses. It is best known as an active ingredient in the commercial weed killer Roundup.
And legislation passed that banned the sale of food in packaging that contains perfluorooctanoic acid (PFOA) and perfluorooctanesulfonic acid (PFOS).
It is expected that lawmakers will return later this summer to address the state’s deteriorating finances, but only after the Congress acts on a stimulus package expected in the next couple of weeks.
One important lesson to be learned from the pandemic session is that the people’s work must continue to get done and conducted in as open a manner as possible to ensure the public’s ability to petition the government.
While it took the Legislature some time to adapt to the “new normal” of the pandemic, it was able to use a combination of technology and best practices to safely do the “people’s business” of holding public hearings, considering legislation and passing bills. New Yorkers – who have done a remarkable job of staffing the frontlines to keep things running and quarantining as required – expect and deserve no less from lawmakers.
Before it returns, the Legislature should take the opportunity to review how democracy has fared during the pandemic in New York and ask the public for input on what, if anything, could be done to boost transparency and public participation as it moves forward in these uncharted waters.
Blair Horner is executive director of the New York Public Interest Research Group.
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