For those confronting it, a crisis hits first with the shock and then unfolds – hopefully – as a growing recognition of what has to be done to respond to that crisis. Earlier this month, Governor Cuomo and the state Legislature (like the rest of us) was presented with the shock of a growing pandemic.
Governor Cuomo, the head of the executive branch, moved quickly to establish himself as New York’s pandemic “commander in chief.” He acted swiftly to respond to the crisis in a clear and commanding manner that instilled confidence in New Yorkers and the nation at large.
The Legislature has yet to figure out how to respond to the shock of the crisis. It was able to approve legislation that allowed the governor freedom to act, largely without the Legislature. But one month into the crisis the Legislature is just now trying to figure out how it can go about its business during a pandemic.
In many ways, it is harder for the Legislature to respond. Unlike the executive branch, which has one elected leader, the Legislature is organized around the majorities formed out of 63 state Senators and 150 state Assemblymembers. They are considered a co-equal branch of government and their role is to be able to bring to state governmental decision-making the feedback they get from their constituents. They are the closest to the grassroots.
But their decision-making requires them to act collectively in small groups and ultimately as legislative bodies, and act in public. They do so through committee deliberations and votes by the entire house. No one person makes the call.
During the legislative session hundreds of lobbyists and constituents flock to the Capitol to make their case to state lawmakers, charged with making the decisions on hundreds of pieces of legislation. Legislators spend much of their days in face-to-face meetings with those pressing their budget and other legislative priorities.
That’s during normal times, but we no longer live in normal times. With 213 state lawmakers, hundreds of legislative staff and hundreds more lobbyists and constituents all in one building, the recipe for contagion is obvious.
Meanwhile, a $178 billion state budget must be approved and New York must take steps to deal with the crisis as well as the hundreds of other issues that need to be addressed.
There are rumors that a budget deal will get done and lawmakers will simply stop coming to Albany to do their work representing the people of the state. While an understandable concern, New Yorkers simply cannot be represented in democratic decision-making if the people they vote to represent them don’t convene.
In what is likely the first time in New York’s history, the Legislature must figure out a way to finalize a budget and act on other pressing matters without convening itself in-person.
So what should happen? Like all of us, they must establish a system that relies on technologies to allow for remote legislative deliberations. Luckily, examples exist.
In two states – Oregon and Wisconsin – specific provisions allow the remote or virtual meeting of the legislature if emergencies exist.
Oregon authorizes legislative participation in session by electronic or other means in the event of an emergency. Wisconsin allows virtual meetings of the legislature and legislative committees when an emergency (or imminent threat of one) exists.
Of course acting deliberately and openly is not a requirement of the legislature alone, but of the executive as well. It must operate openly, and not only follow the letter but the spirit as well of the state’s open meetings and freedom of information laws.
While open and transparent government is fundamental to democracy, it’s perhaps even more critically important during a crisis as the public wants to know what its government is doing and how it is doing it. Rarely have the stakes seemed so high. New Yorkers are paying particularly keen attention to what Albany does.
Actions must be taken. And the legislature must continue to function even after the budget is approved. It is scheduled to be in session for two months after the budget is finally approved and there are many issues that must be addressed.
Democracy needn’t be a pandemic casualty. Thanks to widely available technology, government can work even in these extraordinary times. Now more than ever, New Yorkers expect government to address the problems that we all face while meeting its constitutional and legal responsibilities.
Blair Horner is executive director of the New York Public Interest Research Group.
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