The state Legislature is waking up to the importance of tech

State Sen. Diane Savino and Assemblyman Clyde Vanel
State Sen. Diane Savino and Assemblyman Clyde Vanel
Photos courtesy New York Senate; New York Assembly
State Sen. Diane Savino and Assemblyman Clyde Vanel.

The state Legislature is waking up to the importance of tech

How two state lawmakers plan to lead their colleagues in carefully regulating disruptive technologies.
January 9, 2019

State Sen. Diane Savino and Assemblyman Clyde Vanel have been tasked with an impressive challenge: convincing their colleagues in the state Legislature to make technology regulation a priority in the new session. In some respects, internet and technology can seem like a side venture – something to deal with once core issues are addressed. But as technology becomes enmeshed in more facets of life, including like finance, labor, health care and education, the need to regulate and respond to the growing industry is harder to ignore.

Savino and Vanel – as chairs of the state Senate subcommittee on Internet and Technology and Assembly subcommittee on Internet and New Technology, respectively – will take the lead on tech policy as the new session begins in Albany this week. Vanel, representing the 33rd district of Queens, is entering his second term as chairman of the technology subcommittee, while Savino, a former member of the now-defunct Independent Democratic Conference, is taking over her role from Republican state Sen. George Amedore.

Vanel is heading to Albany this week with one big accomplishment already under his belt. Last week, Gov. Andrew Cuomo signed a bill Vanel authored in the Assembly last year to create a cryptocurrency task force in response to the growth of the financial tech industry and the proliferation of cryptocurrencies and blockchain technology. The task force will recruit technologists, consumers, investors and academics appointed by the governor, state Senate and Assembly, and it will report on its findings by the end of 2020. “We passed the law, so now we actually have to put meat on the bone,” Vanel told City & State. “We have to get the task force up and running, so that's what we're going to do immediately.”

Recognizing the tendency of technology to move much faster than government, Vanel describes part of his approach to policymaking as one that studies the industry, as opposed to reacting to the effects the industry has had in the past. “When it comes to tech, our policy has to be forward-looking and not reactionary,” he said. “Many of my bills are study bills to figure out how do we have evergreen regulations to create a guardrail for the golden goose, but not to stifle it.”

Vanel is also working on putting together a task force to study artificial intelligence, automation and robotics, and their effect on labor, which he wants to have up and running by next year. “How do we properly position New Yorkers in this space where automation and robotics are replacing jobs, but also creating new opportunities?” he asked.

This balance – protecting New Yorkers’ employment and consumer interests while simultaneously welcoming the new economies that technology can usher into the state – is something that some lawmakers and advocates have been grappling with since the announcement that Amazon would open its new headquarters in Long Island City.

Much of the opposition to the new headquarters has been based on the tax breaks and capital grants that the city and state have offered the internet retail giant – as well as the fact that the deal cut local lawmakers out of the process. But significant concerns have also been raised about the gentrifying effect of Amazon’s arrival in Queens, as well as doubts about whether New Yorkers will benefit from the tens of thousands of jobs that the company says it will bring.

Unlike other Queens lawmakers, such as City Councilman Jimmy Van Bramer and state Sen. Michael Gianaris, Vanel is mostly supportive of Amazon’s HQ2, though he says he’ll be watching to ensure that people from New York City properly benefit from its presence.

While Queens is not a part of her constituency, Savino, who represents part of Staten Island, has attempted a diplomatic position on HQ2 as well. “I understand the concerns of the people who represent the area, that they didn't feel they had enough input on it and they're concerned about the arrival of something that big in that neighborhood,” said the state senator. “I do think, though, that it's an amazing opportunity for the city of New York to capture Amazon.”

Savino’s plans for the Senate subcommittee include addressing technology’s massive effect on employment. “I've been speaking for the past several years about the need for labor laws to be dragged into the 21st century, particularly for a sector that's commonly referred to as the gig economy,” she said. “I'm going to focus on how to get a handle on this in terms of legislation and policy to protect workers and provide a clear set of rules for employers.”

As a lawmaker who has been on the forefront of marijuana legalization, Savino also sees an opportunity for tech to intersect with that new economy. In some ways it already has, she noted, with New York’s medical marijuana seed-to-sale program, which uses technology to identify and track cannabis from the moment the seed is planted to when it is sold.

“I think the biggest challenge is going to be getting people to think outside the box, and not try and shoehorn this industry into the old industrial manufacture model,” Savino said. “We regulate businesses and industries in a certain way, and I think what everyone has been trying to do is figure out how you take the tech industry and shoehorn it into one of those models, and I think that's the wrong way to approach it.”

Both Savino and Vanel recognize that their leadership roles on their respective subcommittees can be influential ones, even if it will take some work to convince their colleagues of the importance of legislation to regulate the tech industry. One sign that the Legislature is lagging in understanding the prevalence of technology may be the fact that both the state Senate and Assembly have only established subcommittees, and not fully-fledged committees, to tackle these issues. “It's beyond odd,” Vanel said. “When I got to the Assembly, we didn't even have that subcommittee.”

But, as both lawmakers agreed, as long as they are moving legislation forward, it doesn’t matter too much to them what the committee is called. What Vanel and Savino are mainly concerned about is the information gap that lawmakers experience with technology. “In the statehouse, I have some members that still don't use an ATM machine – in 2018, now 2019,” he said. “Now you understand why there was no committee to look at tech.”

In describing that information gap, Vanel and Savino both mentioned the feeling of a new Industrial Revolution, as Vanel warned against a new era of Luddites and Savino insisted that the fight against tech is a futile one. “Accept the fact that it's here to stay and it's only going to continue to grow,” she said. “We all know that.”

Still, there is hope that the wind is shifting in the Albany. Vanel credited Assembly Speaker Carl Heastie with supporting the new technology subcommittee, and noted that the new majority leader, Crystal Peoples-Stokes, led an educational roundtable on artificial intelligence last year.

On Tuesday, before the start of the new session, Vanel said he planned to sit down with Savino to talk about working together on these issues.

As for the rest of the Legislature, time will tell. “I hope we're starting to take it seriously,” Vanel said. “It's my subcommittee's job. If they're not, then I'm not doing a good job.”

Annie McDonough
Annie McDonough
is a tech and policy reporter at City & State.