Some lawmakers say finishing session is more important than ever

Legislative Gazette file photo

Although the state Legislature met remotely at the end of March and beginning of April to complete the FY 2021 budget, there is still a big question mark about the remainder of the session.

At this time, it is unclear whether they will continue to meet remotely when the legislative session resumes on April 20.

Resolutions were passed in the Senate and the Assembly to vote remotely on a limited basis in order to pass the 2020-2021 budget, however neither house has informed the public if it will reconvene in some way, beginning next week.

Common Cause New York and a handful of lawmakers have been pushing the Legislature to come up with a plan to pass bills remotely via platforms like Zoom. 

On April 15, Assemblywoman Deborah Glick, D-Greenwich Village, joined a conference call with Susan Lerner, executive director of Common Cause/NY to discuss how important it is for legislators to meet remotely.

“While the governor is figuring out how to literally keep New Yorkers alive, lawmakers need to look beyond the rapidly evolving crisis and help plan for recovery, in addition to supporting their constituents,” Lerner said.

Glick acknowledged that not only do a number of bills need to be passed that are relevant and crucial to the COVID-19 pandemic, but there are a number of high-priority bills not related to the virus pandemic, such as the Child Victims Act, and Glick’s sponsored bill A.08212/S.06311 that would disclose that fake clinics are not medical facilities and bill A.08721/S.06699A that would eliminate the misclassification of gig workers. 

Advocates are especially pushing lawmakers to come up with a plan for absentee and early voting for all 2020 elections in New York state. 

Other states have already begun preparations for a remote legislative session. Pennsylvania, for example, passed a bill earlier this week would allow for remote notarization of documents and remote public meetings.

“Our goal is to help the Legislature fulfill its function and hopefully set up a system where committees can function as well so that the calendar can move through in an orderly fashion because we count on our representatives to help us address this crisis with policy and laws, as well as individual help,” Lerner said.

Some New York state lawmakers, like Senator Brad Hoylman, D-Manhattan, are conducting virtual town hall meetings via Zoom that are then shared with the public on Facebook.

However, not all parts of New York state have broadband access that would allow them to view these remote meetings.

“Parts of the state are really quite devoid of this kind of access, so I think that some of what they’re dealing with is how do we live stream a virtual session, as well as make certain that everybody across the state can tune in on their devices,” Glick acknowledged.

Both Senator Hoylman and Assemblywoman Catalina Cruz, D-Jackson Heights, are also calling on the Legislature to meet remotely.

“Even before COVID-19 hit, our legislative to-do list was enormous: we need to get ICE out of our courts, repeal the outdated ban on Walking While Trans, extend the Child Victims Act, and more,” Hoylman said. “Now that we’re dealing with COVID-19, we must pass new legislation to address this unprecedented pandemic, such as cracking down on consumer price gouging, and providing care and resources to frontline medical workers.” 

Common Cause pointed out that the state Senate is especially equipped to operate remotely with relevant software applications accessible from any computer. 

Ten years ago the Senate overhauled its technology systems to allow legislators to work remotely — implementing webmail, supporting smartphones and tablets for the first time, installing secure WiFi routers in district offices, and modernizing many of the institution’s legislative and constituent data and workflow management software applications so that they could be accessed outside of Albany, and publishing all of the Senate’s spending and voting data on the Web.

Part of the motivation at that time was to ensure that lawmakers and their constituents didn’t need to be in Albany to know what was going on in Albany.