Sens. Skoufis + Rivera, AM Kim + Common Cause/NY: "Leg Must Stay in Remote Session"

Expand absentee voting, balance Leg + Exec power in the budget, health care, COVID-19 antibody immunity testing for the informal work sector etc...

NEW YORK, NY (04/08/2020) (readMedia)-- Today, Senators James Skoufis and Gustavo Rivera, Assemblymember Ron Kim and Susan Lerner, Executive Director of Common Cause/NY held a press conference call urging the NYS Legislature to stay in remote session and address issues relating to the COVID-19 crisis, such as absentee voting, balancing the Legislature's power in the budget, health care reform, and antibody immunity testing for the informal work sector.

Other groups and individuals, such as Tenants PAC, Drug Policy Alliance, and survivors of child sex abuse, have also called for lawmakers to stay in remote session and address housing reform, marijuana, and extending the Child Victims Act look back window, among other issues.

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 exactly when session will resume. Additionally, the Assembly is stipulating that all no votes must be made in person.

"Democracy doesn't pause, it adapts. While the Governor continues to triage the COVID crisis, the Legislature must take advantage of existing technologies to continue doing the people's business remotely. Public services is a matter of moral leadership, and New Yorkers need our elected representatives to commit to staying in remote session now more than ever," said Susan Lerner, Executive Director of Common Cause/NY.

"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.

Last 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, the New York Times, and the Daily Gazette published editorials urging New York lawmakers to step up and continue to legislate remotely post-budget.

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.