With only a few days until the annual budget is due, the statehouse in Albany would normally be a hive of deal-making and demonstrations. But the state Capitol is nearly empty this week, as the spread of COVID-19 has triggered a range of mandatory closures in an attempt to slow the advance of the deadly virus.
Governor Andrew Cuomo banned visitors and lobbyists last week. On Monday, Assembly Speaker Carl Heastie and Senate Majority Leader Andrea Stewart-Cousins told lawmakers to stay at home for now, and plan on arriving in Albany on Wednesday. News that two of their own tested positive for COVID-19 also spooked the legislators.
In statements, the leaders said they were figuring out ways for the two conferences to convene safely, now that the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention recommended limiting gatherings to no more than 50 people. (President Trump later reduced the suggested number to 10 people.)
“We’re trying to be incredibly effective this week, to only come in as necessary,” said Senate Deputy Leader Michael Gianaris (D-Queens). “In that short time do as much as we can to move the state forward.”
But the two-day delay also reflected underlying tensions between the legislature and the governor and perhaps presaged other impasses to come as the budget deadline fast approaches.
Several lawmakers, speaking off the record, said Cuomo had declined to fast-track bills legislative members had deemed high priorities – one that would provide paid sick leave to quarantined workers and another that would make technical fixes to an executive order the governor made for candidates petitioning to get onto primary ballots.
“They told us we were better off staying where we were than coming to Albany without bills to pass,” said one lawmaker, who was at Penn Station getting ready to board when he was told to remain in the city.
“When something’s important to him, he has no problem sending a Message of Necessity," said another legislator who was on the New York Thruway near White Plains, when a call prompted a U-turn back to the city.
Cuomo on Monday repeated that he thought the budget could be delivered by Friday—11 days ahead of the usual April 1st deadline, accelerated to get the job done before the pandemic overtook Albany. He downplayed the health risks of gathering elected officials and their staff, at a time when all health authorities—including state Health Commissioner Howard Zucker, who was sitting next to him—have stressed the need for social distancing.
“We’re here in public service, and that’s what we’re doing, at a time when you desperately need —public service,” Cuomo said. “You joined the military. You know when they need you? When there’s a war–that’s when they need you—and this is a war against coronavirus.”
Two Assembly members have the virus, and are recovering. Both the Assembly and Senate say they are working out ways to have members come to the Capitol to vote on legislation, but to also stay safe and help prevent the spread of the illness. One of the ideas is for 10 or so members to come to the chamber to vote, then return to their offices, so the next 10 could come in and cast their votes.
Gianaris said a big challenge would be closing a multi-billion-dollar budget deficit that could grow as the state spends more health care dollars treating those sick with the virus. He did not rule out a proposal on raising taxes on the wealthy to help pay for it.
Cuomo said he thought it would still be possible to pass laws legalizing recreational marijuana for adult use and revising last year’s sweeping bail reforms—two major objectives he laid out at the start of this year’s legislative session.
But advocates called on him to eschew the traditional Albany practice of shoe-horning controversial policy proposals into the budget.
“We are all agreed on a unified and focused fiscal response to the health crisis facing our state, providing the necessary funds as part of the budget so that all levels of government can respond aggressively to the public health threat presented by COVID-19,” said leaders of Common Cause, the League of Women Voters, Citizens Union and Reinvent Albany, in a joint statement. “Lawmakers must remain focused on that goal alone, and not try to cram through unrelated policy issues as part of the budget.”
One prominent Assembly staffer said it’s not fair of Cuomo to expect sweeping laws, at a time when the Democratic majorities in the two chambers couldn’t even meet to discuss the closed-door negotiations between their leaders and Cuomo.
“Everything is still on the table, but we need to be realistic about what we can accomplish,” they said.
“I think he’s in denial,” one senator said. “No one really even wants to talk – we’re afraid to be in the same room with each other.”
Another legislator was also bracing for a mad dash to the finish that could include last-minute changes.
“You always have to be careful of what he sticks in there, deep in the fine print,” they said. “Sometimes it can take days to find things that can be really consequential.”