The traditional “three people in a room” who make the big decisions in Albany may or may not negotiate the state budget via teleconference, but that appears to what is going down with the full state Legislature as the April 1 deadline approaches.
More than a week after two members of the state Assembly tested positive for coronavirus, the state Senate and Assembly are preparing to implement remote voting to limit contact among themselves within the sometimes crowded quarters of the state Capitol.
A video system was set up Thursday in the well of the Assembly chambers, but it remains unclear whether lawmakers would use it to vote on the state budget due April 1. There are also expectations that something similar could be done in the state Senate, though the expectation at this time is that senators would vote for the budget in person and then authorize remote voting so that the chamber could convene as needed in the following weeks and months.
“We are creating the opportunity to do our work remotely,” Stewart-Cousins said on The Capitol Pressroom on Thursday. “We will be passing a resolution, and the Assembly will too, allowing a different type of convening to happen, one that is more technology-based because of the time we are in.”
An Assembly spokesman did not respond to a request for comment about a resolution Assembly Majority Leader Crystal Peoples-Stokes has introduced in the chamber that details how remote voting would work in practice. Under her resolution, the speaker would have discretion to allow members to remotely submit their attendance, debate questions and requests to speak before the full chamber through “teleconference or videoconference.” Another provision states that “technical failure,” such as a lost connection, would invalidate their votes.
Plenty of controversial issues have yet to be worked out between Heastie, Stewart-Cousins and Gov. Andrew Cuomo. State budgets are usually broken down into a few up-or-down votes on omnibus bills, but some votes here and there could make a difference on issues like health care, education funding, bail reform or marijuana legalization. “This is the time for both sides to sort of strike with their messaging, right?” said Christina Greer, an associate professor of political science at Fordham University. “This is an opportunity to have some substantive discussions that have been on the docket for quite some time, but are now being presented in a very different and distinct light.”
Two lawmakers – Assemblyman Charles Barron and Assembly Ways and Means Chair Helene Weinstein – announced they had the coronavirus in mid-March. While stricter measures were later taken to limit contact among lawmakers, Assembly Speaker Carl Heastie announced that a third lawmaker, Assemblywoman Kimberly Jean-Pierre, had tested positive the day after she cast a vote in the chamber last week.
Older lawmakers are particularly vulnerable to getting infected in the typically close quarters of the legislative chambers and committee rooms. State Sen. John Brooks spent a brief period in precautionary quarantine last week, though he later tested negative for the virus. Other lawmakers have also had to consider how they will balance their political concerns with a need to respect public health guidelines that aim to limit the spread of the virus.
Unless they implement some form of remote voting in coming days, lawmakers risk conceding an enormous amount of power to the governor. While Cuomo has previously said that lawmakers have a duty to do their jobs during the ongoing emergency, that stance appeared to shift at a Thursday press conference in the state Capitol.
A budget deficit that has ballooned to $15 billion means that state funding will have to remain flexible in the upcoming year. Given the economic uncertainty, funding allocations might have to be adjusted at each fiscal quarter. “I don’t believe the Legislature is going to want to come up here every quarter and go through numbers,” Cuomo said. “At this rate, with the spread of the virus, I don’t even know that it would be responsible to ask for a convening of the legislature.”
If lawmakers cannot make those decisions, Cuomo said state Budget Director Robert Mujica should be put in charge. The coming days will show whether the state Legislature will allow that to happen, but lawmakers could have a limited appetite for fiscal issues during an election year.