Common Cause/NY, Drug Policy Alliance + Tenants PAC: "Leg Must Stay in Remote Session"

Address expanding absentee voting, marijuana, rent, the Child Victims Act look back window

NEW YORK, NY (04/03/2020) (readMedia)-- Hours after the NYS Legislature passed the budget, Common Cause/NY, the Drug Policy Alliance, Tenants PAC, and a survivor of child sex abuse urged the Legislature to stay in remote session and address policy relating to the COVID-19 crisis, including housing reform, expanding absentee voting, marijuana, and extending the Child Victims Act look back window, among others.

LISTEN to the presser.

Both the Assembly and the Senate have passed resolutions and rules changes that will allow lawmakers to vote remotely on a limited or as needed basis, but neither house has specifically indicated whether session will continue. Additionally, the Assembly is stipulating that all no votes must be made in person.

Earlier this week, Common Cause/NY and Andrew Hoppin, the former and first ever Chief Information Officer for the NYS Senate, held a press conference call to provide guidance and technical expertise for how New York lawmakers can and should continue to function in virtual session. Both the Albany Times Union and the New York Times published editorials urging New York lawmakers to step up and continue to legislate remotely post-budget.

"Now that the budget is finalized, New York lawmakers can and must address the myriad policy issues and COVID-19 related legislation, including expanding absentee voting which is crucial to ensuring the success of our elections in June and November. Lawmakers need to look beyond the rapidly evolving crisis, and help plan for recovery in addition to supporting their constituents. We have the technology for remote hearings and voting, all the Legislature has to do is use it," said Susan Lerner, Executive Director of Common Cause/NY.

"The refusal by Andrew Cuomo to cancel rent leaves the state in a dangerous situation, with hundreds of thousands of tenants at risk of eviction once the courts reopen for business. This is one of many issues that the legislature must address in a remote session after the budget is done. Renters are also voters and taxpayers, and we need our 213 lawmakers to keep working for us," said Mike McKee, Treasurer of Tenants PAC.

"Just seven months into the one year look back window of the Child Victims Act, the COVID-19 pandemic has effectively shut down the civil justice system, locking out survivors who thought they had more time to file a case. Survivors need the Legislature to make good on the original promise of the CVA and stay in remote session to extend the window another year. All survivors deserve more time to pursue justice," said Mary Ellen O'Loughlin, a survivor of child sex abuse.

"Every day, we bear witness to the crushing stigma of prior and current marijuana criminalization, which prohibits individuals from fully participating in society, inhibiting their ability to keep their family together, get a job, continue their education, or secure stable housing. These impacts carry additional dire implications in this moment of both public health and financial instability and merit an urgent response. More than ever, the creation of a diversified and equitable industry that supports New York-based small businesses farmers will be imperative coming out of this crisis. We need the legislature to pass marijuana legalization and regulation that is centered in economic and racial justice this session. The communities that are on the frontlines of this crisis – and grappling with the economic toll from decades of criminalization -- must be the focus," said Melissa Moore, NY Deputy Director, Drug Policy Alliance.

Existing technologies and options for a remote legislature

Ten years ago the NYS Senate overhauled its technology systems to better 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.

As a result, the NYS Senate is already well equipped to operate remotely, with full support for mobile devices and the ability to access and operate key information publishing, legislative research information and constituent service software applications from any web browser.

New remote meetings and legislative workflow management could readily be added by vendors like Granicus, Tallan, PrimeGov, and Propylon, and even more simply by adding affordable off-the-shelf tools such as Zoom to the legislature's existing in-house capabilities. Remote voting, given the bi-cameral nature of State legislatures, could require some custom work by the highly capable legislative IT organizations, but simplifying parliamentarian rules such as requiring the physical printing of bills may be the larger impediment than the technology to record votes remotely.

The NYC Council's existing technology vendor, Granicus, also offers a GovMeetings tool suite that could readily add remote voting and remote public comment functionality to the Council's existing Granicus "Legistar" remote meetings software.