Common Cause/NY to Legislature: "One Hearing is Not Enough, Do Your Job"

Lawmakers, advocacy groups, service providers, and tech experts demand NYS Leg start functioning as a co-equal branch of gov't

NEW YORK, NY (05/13/2020) (readMedia)-- While Governor Cuomo is appointing commissions helmed by tech giants and single handedly running New York via executive order -- changing 262 laws in 55 days according to the Albany Times Union -- the Legislature has been completely absent. After six weeks of total inaction, lawmakers today plan to hold their first hearing, with invite-only testimony, on the federal response to COVID-19. Lawmakers last voted on budget bills on April 2nd. By comparison the New York City Council has held at least 16 hearings and 1 stated meetings in the last three weeks.

"One hearing in six weeks is not a reason to celebrate. Public service is a matter of moral leadership, and New Yorkers need lawmakers to step up and do their jobs by legislating remotely. We expect the 213 democratically elected representatives we pay and put in office to do more than just wait and see what the Governor and President are going to do next," said Susan Lerner, Executive Director of Common Cause/NY.

Common Cause/NY has held numerous virtual press conferences with lawmakers, candidates, advocacy groups, service providers, and tech experts on the need and ability for the Legislature to continue functioning as a co-equal branch of government. The Albany Times Union, the New York Times, the Buffalo News, and Daily Gazette have all published editorials urging New York state lawmakers to step up and continue to legislate remotely post-budget.

In response, legislative leaders have offered numerous excuses for their inaction, refusing to commit publicly to a clear timeline for returning to session remotely, and failing to announce any accommodations for remote legislating. Both Speaker Carl Heastie and Majority Leader Andrea Stewart-Cousins have mentioned they'll get to legislating eventually. Speaker Heastie commented this week: "I know people seem to be a little frustrated, but it's kind of like we're circling the airport till they tell us it's safe to land."

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.

"The COVID-19 pandemic has exposed the holes in our safety net and has identified the many vulnerable New Yorkers we still need to protect. In the wake of a public health crisis, our frontline workers aren't protected by their employers - many times by choice, sometimes by chance - and it's time we get back to work and pass laws that could protect and save thousands of lives. Who will protect these workers if our government won't?" said State Senator Jessica Ramos.

"My colleagues and I are working nonstop on the ground to ensure that our constituents have the resources they need to survive, but that is only one piece of the puzzle. We must also provide systemic relief and long-term solutions for New Yorkers during this time of great need, and that requires legislation. There are a number of urgent bills that can help our communities, including my Healthy Terminals Act to provide access to affordable healthcare for our essential airport workers, but we cannot get any of them done until the legislature goes back into session. It is our job as public servants to fight for the rights and safety of the people we represent – we must let the legislators legislate," said State Senator Alessandra Biaggi.

"We have so much to do in this crisis to keep the public safe, protect our first responders and essential workers, fight on behalf of our schools and hospitals, provide housing relief and ensure New Yorkers who have been laid off or furloughed can put food on the table. As this crisis rages on and exposes our City and State's vast inequities, it's more vital than ever to fight for a more just and fair New York. The legislature must get back to work," said State Senator Andrew Gounardes.

"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. 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. Like many of my colleagues, I'm eager to use the Senate's new remote voting technology to get back to work - there's no time to waste!" said Senator Brad Hoylman.

"While the Legislature and the Executive were able to reach a budget deal, as obscure as that process was, there are still important policy issues that were left on the table and that must be addressed during the rest of the legislative session," said State Senator Gustavo Rivera. "As we face a global pandemic, it is our responsibility to those who elected us to continue working diligently to address the challenges being faced by New Yorkers during this crisis. We have put in place the necessary mechanisms to proceed with session and vote remotely so there should not be an excuse to proceed with session as scheduled."

"It's essential for government to continue carrying out its duties now more than ever. I stand with my like-minded colleagues in the Legislature and Common Cause New York in calling for session to proceed. If necessary, we have the authority to vote remotely; regardless, we must meet the fundamental obligations and expectations that we are elected to fulfill. We have lots of work left to do - let's get to it," said Senator James Skoufis.

"Passing a state budget this year was merely the minimum requirement for us as legislators in New York. In the midst of an worldwide health and economic crisis, there are still far too many essential issues that we must still address in New York before this session can truly end. I stand with my colleagues who joined today's call in urging all state lawmakers to keep work remotely on key legislation, including bills that we simply must pass to adequately address the COVID-19 pandemic," said Assemblymember Ron Kim.

"There is little time left in the legislative session and there is so much work to be done. We must resume session to pass long term solutions to increase revenue by taxing the rich, provide resources such as hazard pay to our essential workers during a crisis, and create protections for our most vulnerable. This is not the time to be waiting around. We need action, we need to vote on bills, these policies cannot wait. This pandemic has shown the holes in our systems and the strong need that exists to repair them. I join my colleagues in calling for resuming session now," said Assembly Member Aravella Simotas.

"I am proud to join Common Cause and my colleagues in the senate and assembly to urge our return to legislative session remotely. Our communities have been hardest hit by the COVID-19 pandemic and there is a lot of work to do in order to ensure that we address the economic and social hardships that our communities are facing. I have joined my colleagues in introducing and supporting legislation that advances the plight of excluded immigrant workers, tenants and homeowners, small businesses, and communities disproportionately impacted by this pandemic. We must now get back to session to continue the work of the people," said Assemblywoman Carmen De La Rosa.

"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. Some of these new tools and methods, potentially coupled with some enabling changes to policies and procedures, might even prove to add further efficiency and transparency to the work of these bodies, such that they could be maintained after this crisis is over," said Andrew Hoppin, former and first Chief Information Officer for the NYS Senate.

"I'm definitely concerned with the erosion of democracy in our state during this pandemic, from the consolidation of power in the executive branch to the temporary cancellation of the presidential primary. Our democratic norms are meant to protect us, and putting them aside for expediency in a time of crisis will come back to haunt us when this is over," said Jabari Brisport, candidate for Senate District 25.

"COVID-19 has torn through our communities and exposed the gaping holes and glaring inequality that this country has been built on. As advocates and community leaders, we need to use all the tools we have to fight for the lives of New Yorkers. We elected representatives to ensure that every member of our community has a voice in government. But while Governor Cuomo is allowed to rule our state via executive order, those voices have been muffled. In a time of unprecedented crisis we demand our lawmakers resume session and get back to work advocating for the rights and safety of our neighbors," said Jason Salmon, candidate for Senate District 25.

"At this critical time in our nation, it is imperative that New York State continue to lead the way in our response to the Covid-19 pandemic. Those most impacted by this health crisis- low income individuals and families, communities of color, and immigrants- must be fully represented by their elected officials in Albany and need swift action from the legislature to advance legislation that will provide economic relief and continued access to health care and income supports," said Jennifer Jones Austin, CEO and Executive Director of the Federation of Protestant Welfare Agencies.

"We can't underestimate the dimensions of the COVID-19 crisis, especially the fact that the largest burdens will fall on the working poor and the most vulnerable among us," said David R. Jones, CSS President and CEO. "Now that the federal government has responded to this pandemic, and the gaps in relief are emerging, we need a fully-engaged State Legislature to be part of the process of restarting our economy, making sure those who are disproportionately impacted are not left out, and contributing ideas to how we restore confidence that New York is a safe. The technology exists for legislators to work remotely. We must take advantage of it to ensure that the voices and concerns of New Yorkers are represented."

"In order to continue to offer a compassionate & effective response to New Yorkers impacted both by violence & abuse and by COVID-19, Safe Horizon has adjusted how we operate across New York City. In some cases, programs such as shelters and Child Advocacy Centers remain open; in other cases, Safe Horizon staff are reaching out telephonically to clients and representing them in virtual court proceedings. Whatever our service delivery model looks like during this pandemic, our dedication and commitment to our clients remains unwavering. We urge the New York State Legislature to similarly adapt as needed in order to pass critically important bills to keep New Yorkers safe and create paths to justice for victims. Our clients simply cannot wait another year for assistance," said Michael Polenberg, VP of Government Affairs for Safe Horizon.

"The New York legislature must come back together for remote session to ensure that the communities they represent get necessary support during the COVID-19 pandemic and to plan recovery efforts. The Governor has not made necessary investments in the human services organizations millions of New Yorkers are relying on right now for lifesaving services, nor has the Governor included our frontline workers in the supply chain for personal protective equipment he has mandated. We need the legislature to support not only those workers, but the millions of New Yorkers suffering from this pandemic. There are a myriad of issues – from emergency funding for essential services to legislation to protect workers and families – that need to be addressed now. We should not be limiting the democratic process right now, as the voices of communities are needed now more than ever," said Michelle Jackson, the Acting Executive Director of the Human Services Council (HSC), a membership organization representing over 170 human services providers in New York.

"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.