After the budget, then what? Good-government groups hope lawmakers can work remotely

Legislative Gazette file photo
It appears doubtful that the full Legislature will return to the state Capitol this session, but good government groups are hoping the Senate and Assembly can continue doing the people’s work by learning to read and vote on legislation remotely.

Democracy doesn’t pause during emergencies, it adapts.

Two good government groups are urging state lawmakers to adopt this mantra and continue to legislative, even after the budget is adopted.

Common Cause New York and Citizens Union held a press conference call on Tuesday, March 31 to provide guidance and direction for New York lawmakers on how they can legislate remotely during this national pandemic.

For the past several weeks, the Governor’s Office and state lawmakers have been focused on handling the coronavirus outbreak in New York and developing a budget in the face of the largest revenue shortfall in recent history. There has been no indication whether lawmakers will return to Albany this session.

Common Cause NY points out that other other states like Pennsylvania, are holding public meetings, hearings, and voting remotely as of last week.

“The Legislature is a co-equal branch of government that cannot cede its role to the Executive [Branch], which is correctly triaging the current state of emergency,” said Susan Lerner, the executive director of Common Cause NY.

“While the governor is figuring out how to get 40,000 ventilators, and literally keep New York alive, lawmakers need to look beyond the rapidly evolving crisis, and help plan for recovery in addition to supporting their constituents,” Lerner said. “We have the technology, the Legislature should use it.”

State legislatures typically operate under a “you must be present” rule. This requires that legislators be physically present to participate in debate or voting. However, both the New York State Assembly and Senate have passed resolutions that will allow lawmakers to vote remotely on a limited, or as-needed, basis.

“During these extraordinary circumstances, it is critical that the People’s House is able to continue to do the people’s work,” Speaker of the Assembly Carl Heastie stated in a press release announcing the resolution.

Senate Majority Leader Andrea Stewart-Cousins tweeted, “…During these unprecedented times, our state government requires continuity, and New Yorkers deserve leadership and action” and “…Tomorrow we will pass a resolution authorizing limited remote voting as necessary,” on March 28.

Yet neither announcement clarified whether session will continue past today as the state budget is decided.

From 2009-2011, Andrew Hoppin was the first ever Chief Information Officer for the New York State Senate, where his team opened up thousands of datasets for the first time and published all of its code in the first government Github repository in the world. Hoppin is working with Common Cause NY to educate the state Legislature on the existing technologies and options they could utilize to continue to work remotely.

Ten years ago the New York State Senate overhauled its technology systems to better allow legislators to work remotely with the goal for legislators to know what was happening in Albany without having to physically be there. Therefore, Hoppin believes the Senate is already well equipped to operate remotely, with full support for mobile devices as well as access to legislative research information and constituent service software applications.

“The New York Legislature maintains more sophisticated and well-resourced technology organizations than most states, and I’m confident that they could readily add affordable off-the-shelf software applications where needed to support these elected bodies in being fully operational while working remotely during this time,” Hoppin said.

New remote meetings and legislative workflow management can easily be added with simple tools like Zoom and Google Hangout. The largest obstacle to remote legislation is the requirement to physically print bills.

The New York State Constitution rules that “No bill shall be passed or become a law unless it shall have been printed and upon the desks of the members, in its final form, at least three calendar legislative days prior to its final passage.”

The only way to mitigate this impediment to remote legislation is for the governor to make an informed decision on whether a bill requires an immediate vote, in which case it must be presented to members, but not necessarily in printed form before its final passage.

The New York City Council currently operates with the help of Granicus, an American technology company that works in legislation management. Granicus offers a tool suite called GovMeetings, which could add remote voting and remote public comment functionality to the New York State Legislature.

“The decisions lawmakers make today will have a lasting impact on our government,” said Betsy Gotbaum, Executive Director of Citizens Union. “During these extraordinary times, elected officials should be able to deliberate and vote remotely, while also be able to carefully examine the consequential measures put before them.

“Assembly members should follow the same rules the Senate has approved for these extraordinary times, and make sure emergency procedure rules do not become permanent.”