ALBANY — It may not be much of an exaggeration to say that this week’s legislative session will be held against the most-chaotic backdrop since New York lawmakers fled the then-capital of Kingston in advance of a British attack in 1777.
Only three things about the coming days were definitely known as of Sunday night. Most lawmakers hoped to scramble through three months’ worth of major and minor policy items in the next five days. The Capitol, for the first time in memory, would be completely shut down to lobbyists and members of the public. And legislators would be meeting without several colleagues, as at least two lawmakers have tested positive for the coronavirus.
“I have seen August budgets and non-budgets and two coups. I have never seen this,” said one lobbyist. “People are scared. Not just for themselves; whether it is a lobbyist on a competing firm, a staffer for an advocacy org, a reporter, a member, or someone else, people we all care about are in vulnerable situations. But at the same time we all have work to do.”
Legislators are hopeful that a budget agreement can be reached much earlier than the March 31 deadline: “Stay until the budget’s done, and then all be quarantined for 14 days,” said Assemblywoman Yuh-Line Niou (D-Manhattan).
Assembly Democrats plan to gather in a private conference in the late afternoon on Monday. They’ll then vote on a bill introduced over the weekend that clarifies Gov. Andrew Cuomo’s plan to ease petitioning requirements for this year’s elections.
Assembly Speaker Carl Heastie announced on Sunday that his house had been in touch with the Department of Health “to evaluate members and conduct testing and proper next steps where appropriate.” But a lot of questions remain about how safe a large congregation of people from throughout the state gathering in tight quarters would be.
“I think we are having conference in a bigger room, but they didn’t say where yet,” said Assemblywoman Patricia Fahy (D-Albany). “I think there is going to be every effort to keep the three-foot social distance.”
“They did not put out any kind of protocol, like three or four [people] at a time,” Niou said. “I think they will work on that. I hope that it’s going to be done; I just don’t feel like we have as any protocol or plans in as we should.”
Heastie announced on Saturday night that two members of the Assembly, Brooklynites Helene Weinstein and Charles Barron, had been diagnosed with the coronavirus. Cuomo subsequently announced that visitors to the Capitol would be banned.
That sets up a previously unimaginable dynamic as legislators rush to pass a budget. In the final weeks of March, the halls of the Capitol are usually jam-packed with activists shouting deafening chants and lobbyists conversing with, and occasionally buttonholing, legislators.
Now, they’ll all need to hope that lawmakers will choose to hear their pleas.
“We’ve really been operating off our phones,” said one lobbyist, who predicted that top officials like Budget Director Robert Mujica would be completely unavailable to hear requests. “I had a phone installed in my apartment right now, and that’s what I’ve been working with.”
“We’ve been reaching out to central staff to make sure they have our cell phone numbers, but we’re just going to wait and take it day by day,” another lobbyist said.
And they, like so many New Yorkers, will need to go about their tasks under a shroud of economic uncertainty: “Some firms are already [saying] ‘we’re going to lose clients because the economy’s going to tank,’ but who knows about that? That’s way down the line,” a lobbyist said.
And it’s obviously a very open-ended question how much gets done in the coming days. The budget is usually the vehicle for much of the year’s major policy items. It’s a reasonable bet that this year’s will be less dense than normal, but Cuomo has said he still hopes that issues like a bail reform rollback and paid surrogacy will find their way into the end product.
“It’s alarming and undemocratic,” said the Center for Community
Alternatives’ Katie Schaffer, who supports last year’s bail law. “The idea that the governor and others would try to ram through bail reform rollbacks at a moment when impacted communities could not even be physical present in Albany is terrifying.”
And on top of everything else, it’s likely that lawmakers will be tasked with dealing crises that have arisen in recent days or will spring up in the coming ones.
“This is real life in real time, and we are all doing our damnedest to try to protect the interests of citizens,” said Assemblyman Chuck Lavine (D-Nassau County).