New York Legislature Returns To Capitol This Week

May 22, 2020

While Governor Andrew Cuomo has held daily briefings on the coronavirus and issued over 250 executive orders, the state legislature has been absent from the Capitol for six weeks. Now, Assembly Speaker Carl Heastie and Senate Leader Andrea Stewart-Cousins say they plan to hold committee meetings on May 26, and convene in session in the following days to vote on legislation related to the COVID-19 pandemic.

Most senators and assemblymembers will not be present in the chambers, but will remain in their offices, and in some cases, their homes, voting remotely. A few will come to the Capitol in person to run the proceedings on the floor.  

It will be the first session held since the state budget was approved in early April. The legislature has held two hearings, remotely, to assess the impact of the coronavirus on small businesses and on the minority communities. 

The Assembly chair of the Cities Committee, Edward Braunstein, co-chaired the hearing along with Senator Robert Jackson, who is the chair of the Committee on Cities in that house. Jackson says there is a lot for lawmakers to consider. 

“This feels like too large a topic to cover in one day,” said Jackson, at the start of the daylong hearing.

Advocacy groups are not allowed in the building, which has been closed to visitors since mid-March. But they have held events on Zoom and other mediums to call attention to bills they would like to see addressed.

Rodney Holcombe works on criminal justice police for Forward US. He joined prisoners’ rights groups, who are want to make it easier to release inmates over the age of 55 who have served most of their sentences. They say it’s even more urgent during the pandemic, when the virus can be more easily transmitted in the communal prison settings.

“We learned over 81% of the people who died since the outbreak of COVID-19 in New York State prisons are people of color,” Holcombe said in a Zoom press conference on May 18. “Despite their making up a much smaller share of the incarcerated population here in New York.”

So far, there have been no major outbreaks of the virus in state prisons. A recent study by Governor Cuomo’s health department found that while some prison guards have become sick, overall fewer have tested positive for COVID-19 than in the state’s general population.

Assembly Republican Leader Will Barclay is eager to get back to work. Barclay, who is in the minority party in that chamber, says Democrats who lead both houses of the legislature have been ceding too much control to the governor. Barclay spoke from his home via Skype.

“It’s almost like we’re all sitting around waiting for the governor to give a proclamation every day when he does his press conference about what’s going to be next,” Barclay said. “I don’t think that’s a good way to govern.” 

Barclay says he knows the governor and his team had to make decisions quickly in an emergency, but he questions the logic of some policies, including keeping big box stores open while small retailers had to close. And reopening beaches over the holiday weekend, but limiting Memorial Day ceremonies to just 10 people. He says lawmakers would like to know more of what is behind the decision making.

“There has to be more transparency,” Barclay said.

Barclay says the legislature also needs to be more proactive in examining what might have gone wrong in the state’s nursing home policy at the height of the virus, where there have been high rates of death. He also says the state’s unemployment insurance system, overwhelmed by over a million applications from jobless New Yorkers, has been the target of hundreds of complaints, bears examination.

The government reform group Common Cause has been urging the legislature to return, or to conduct hearings and sessions remotely. The New York City Council and most local government have already been conducting remote session for weeks. Executive Director Susan Lerner says the state lawmakers’ decision to return is a very positive development.

“They are a co-equal branch of government, and democratic society the governor just does not run New York by himself,” Lerner said.  

Governor Cuomo, who in mid-March castigated the legislature for adjourning, saying they are considered essential workers and should be showing up in Albany and doing their jobs. Lately, he seems content to have lawmakers out of the Capitol. But he says he is consulting the legislative leaders about the decisions that he is making.

“I’m not taking actions that I’m not talking to them about, they are raising issues with me,” Cuomo said on May 16. “They are very much engaged in everything that we are doing.” 

Cuomo says legislators have been busy in their districts helping constituents and are “working harder than ever.” And the governor say he expects to weigh in on the legislature’s actions when they return next week.