More than two centuries ago, our state and national founding fathers often traveled hundreds of miles to meet, forging muddy paths atop tired horses, through blizzards and torrential rain and oppressive heat, through woods populated with hostile natives and enemy soldiers.
Through all that, they managed to run a Revolutionary War against the dominant global power, declare independence, write history’s greatest constitution and institute the world’s strongest representative democracy, which survives to this day.
Compare that with the New York State Legislature, which with all the modern conveniences of travel and communication hasn’t yet been able to figure out how to meet and vote on vital legislation during a period of social isolation.
Families living thousands of miles apart across the country are holding virtual Saturday night bingo games on Zoom. Businesses are operating with face masks and plexiglass barriers and distancing restrictions and nightly scrubbing of surfaces.
But the second-highest-paid Legislature in the country has sat around for the better part of two months ceding its power and its responsibility to the governor.
We’ve been urging lawmakers to get back to work for weeks now. But recent actions by Gov. Andrew Cuomo in the vacuum of legislative direction have made the need for lawmakers’ return even more urgent.
One that stands out is the governor’s recent executive order extending to Jan. 14 a provision of the Child Victims’ Act, allowing childhood sexual abuse victims more time to file claims against their abusers. The act, which went into effect last August, opened a one-year window for victims of child sex abuse to bring civil action without the burden of following past statutes of limitation.
Don’t get us wrong. We’re fully in favor of extending the act, which officially expires in August. One year, we’ve argued, is not enough time for many victims to come forward and prepare their cases. So we’ve editorialized in favor of extending it another year.
But despite the importance of the act and the urgency of extending it, it was not the governor’s responsibility or role to do so.
The governor has, during the coronavirus outbreak, taken on special powers to manage the crisis — powers such as mandating the wearing of masks in public, limiting the number and types of businesses that are allowed to be open, restricting the types of workers who may do their jobs and even suspending parts of the state Open Meetings Law.
Gov. Cuomo even once threatened to use his authority to summon the National Guard to confiscate medical equipment from upstate hospitals to bring to downstate hospitals, although he later backed off.
Agree with the specifics of his actions or not, these are the types of emergency powers a governor needs to manage a deadly pandemic.
But extending legislation that’s completely unrelated to the pandemic is not.
Even if one argues the governor’s extension was related to the outbreak because the courts have been shut down, it was not urgent. The law doesn’t expire for three more months, plenty of time for state lawmakers to act.
But they haven’t.
That’s just one example of where the Legislature’s extended COVID isolation has resulted in the state’s lawmaking body abdicating its responsibility to the governor.
By not convening, they’re also failing to address a number of vitally important matters that should not be left exclusively to a single person in the executive branch to undertake on his own.
After rushing through a phony state budget 48 days ago just to get something passed, lawmakers haven’t met remotely, save for a single hearing.
Among the unfinished business is legislation to expand voting opportunities in the wake of the coronavirus outbreak to cut down on in-person voting, which can help spread the virus. Common Cause NY, for instance, says lawmakers need to codify the governor’s expansion of absentee voting to make it more feasible and accessible to people with disabilities and others; expand early voting to spread out the in-person voting and give New Yorkers more time to cast their ballots; and change the deadline for postmarked ballots to allow adequate time for mailing.
Some lawmakers are calling for the Legislature to come back into session to amend the state’s Green Light Law to address federal concerns about travel documents, while others want lawmakers to play a greater role in managing the coronavirus economic roll-out and to legislate rules and financial breaks for renters, landlords and for employees like restaurant- and day care workers.
And don’t forget we have a potential crisis looming in our education system, with significant projected funding shortages to public education and SUNY, along with questions about how, or even if, students can return to class in the fall.
We didn’t elect local representatives to sit on their hands and issue press releases from their home offices. We elected them to participate in the operation of our government by passing legislation and holding hearings and advocating for their constituents.
Does everyone in the state believe Gov. Cuomo is able to represent the best interests of individual Senate and Assembly districts as he’s managing this statewide crisis?
Surely legislative leaders can find a way to conduct business without physically interacting. They’ve had two months to figure it out. Other states and cities have managed to operate remotely during the crisis with the use of special electronic tablets and other tools. Why not New York?
Heck, they could even go back to paper ballots if it comes to that.
Our state government was not intended to be run by one person. It was meant to be run by local representatives and a statewide executive working in concert and conflict with one another. That’s representative democracy.
Under the current arrangement, the citizens of New York are not being adequately or fully represented.
It’s time for state legislators to get on their horses and get back to work.