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State lawmakers look to reassert themselves with array of Covid-19 measures

ALBANY – As New Yorkers look to restart society, the State Legislature plans to be there, too.

Already on the front lines dealing with constituents frightened and confused about the Covid-19 pandemic, lawmakers are looking to adopt a major set of novel coronavirus-inspired bills.

They also have been privately discussing via conference calls new tax revenues – including on taxes on millionaires and stock transfers – as a way to blunt deep spending cuts to vital services that Gov. Andrew M. Cuomo is considering to close a worsening deficit.

And while lawmakers have taken a back seat to Cuomo and his daily briefings and national media appearances for more than a month, they also are planning something else: hearings – very much in public – to look at a range of issues that have arisen in the state that has seen far more coronavirus deaths than any other, and whether more could have been done sooner to address the pandemic’s march.

While Cuomo earlier this month declared a de facto end of the Legislature’s 2020 session, lawmakers this week are reminding New Yorkers that they come from a separately elected branch of government with its own set of powers – and its own timetable.

“As the speaker has said, session is not over and we are looking at various Covid-related bills. We are also planning hearings in some critical areas to see what could be done to address this crisis and help New Yorkers,’’ Michael Whyland, a spokesman for Assembly Speaker Carl Heastie, a Bronx Democrat, said this week.

Fog descends on Albany as Covid uncertainties weigh heavily on state budget talks

Lawmakers across the state have been living in their districts, seeing Covid-infected constituents get sick and in some cases die.

“The governor is doing a lot by executive orders. To the extent that’s effective, that’s great. But there are understandably going to be holes in that effort that the Legislature is uniquely equipped to fill," said Senate Deputy Majority Leader Michael Gianaris, a Democrat from Queens, where nearly 3,200 people have died during the coronavirus pandemic.

“We are on the ground, in the communities. We are in the food pantries … and with a unique perspective to raise some perspectives that maybe are not evident at the 10,000-foot level,’’ added Gianaris, who is pushing one of his Covid bills to give temporary payment relief to residential and small commercial renters.

When Covid fears drove lawmakers out of the Capitol, Cuomo and others suggested the 2020 session – due to end in June – was over. Now, though, legislators can vote remotely, and lawmakers expect the session will be done off and on throughout 2020. “There’s no reason to ever believe that. If anyone does believe that, they should be dispelled of that notion,’’ Gianaris said of the session ending prematurely.

This month, lawmakers have introduced more than 60 Covid-focused bills. Most have come from lawmakers from New York City, the pandemic's epicenter.

Since the pandemic spread in New York, Assemblywoman Karines Reyes, a Bronx Democrat, has introduced several bills, including one to add bereavement as an eligible factor for paid family leave. Reyes is a nurse, and in late March she rejoined her former hospital – while keeping her Assembly job – to help with the crush of patients.

“I think it lends some credibility to the positions I take when it comes to health care and legislation,’’ Reyes said in an interview Wednesday of her work caring for Covid patients. “And I think it makes me uncompromising with some issues when you experience how fast people are dying and the reality of people suffering from Covid.”

“To me, it’s not just a statistic that the governor gives every afternoon,’’ she said of Cuomo’s daily briefings. “For me, it’s the patients whose bodies I’ve had to wrap or the family members I’ve had to talk to on the phone.”

Reyes said she has thought often while at her hospital about how she can use her job as a lawmaker to expand things like paid leave for bereavement or sick leave for nurses who get sick on the job treating Covid patients. As the longer term implications become clear, Reyes said more and more bills will be flowing through the Legislature than the preliminary ones now under consideration.

Early on, lawmakers' Covid bills focused on the state’s political season, such as reducing the number of signatures needed to get on a ballot to run for office this year.

Lawmakers have not returned to Albany since the budget was passed in early April. But the added time in their districts – and hearing from constituents – is depicted in the kinds of Covid bills now appearing.

The first set of Covid-related matters they passed were sought by Cuomo: $40 million in emergency response aid and new, historic powers handed to the governor to unilaterally change the state budget passed by lawmakers in any ways he wants if revenues don’t come in as expected.

Since then, the Legislature’s tone has changed. One bill mandates that the Cuomo administration now give lawmakers a report on the disproportionate Covid hit on minority communities. Another requires regular reporting on the state’s supply of ventilators.

Still another seeks to use the crisis to call for a constitutional amendment to even the playing field between the Legislature and governor in the state’s annual budget adoption process, one in which New York governors enjoy extraordinary legal standing over lawmakers. And another proposes to block the state from imposing Thruway tolls on trucks transporting essential supplies during an emergency.

There are various price-gouging bills, as well. They would prevent, via new penalties, things like exorbitant prices some consumers or health facilities had to pay for masks or cleaning supplies. Utilities would be banned from shutting off services to customers during a declared emergency, and transportation services for disabled people would be mandated to specifically continue under other bills.

There are also growing moves by lawmakers that don’t necessarily require legislation. Two Hudson Valley lawmakers are pressing the Cuomo administration to make it easier for auto insurance firms to give premium rebates to consumers. A Brooklyn lawmaker, Joseph Lentol, on Wednesday urged animal shelters to stop euthanizing dogs and cats at a time when Covid patients may be separated from their pets; he plans a bill soon to impose a one-year halt on animal killings at shelters in New York.

“The policy I am advocating makes sense and should not need to be legislated, but instead of just requesting that a government agency implement and hope for the best, I believe state legislation is called for,’’ Lentol said Wednesday.

On the Covid front, a Queens lawmaker is pushing a bill for special hazard pay for front-line health care and other workers. There are bills to mandate suspension of mortgage payments in certain cases and consumer-related measures to protect credit ratings or demand new transparency of banks in how they handled customers during the pandemic.

Another lawmaker is pushing a bill to prohibit private companies that get any special Covid-related stimulus funds from also then getting any New York State tax credits if they engaged in stock buybacks. Cash-rich companies use stock buybacks to invest in themselves and drive up their own stock prices.

There is an expanding list of new Covid-inspired public health bills. One requires employers to notify employees when one of their colleagues tests positive with a virus causing a public health emergency. Another lets various entities, including employers, require temperature tests before workers enter a workplace.

Other Covid-related bills include ones:

  • Requiring the state to devise specific protocols for the release of certain inmates during a declared emergency, which could include pandemics or even wars, so long as such inmates are deemed, among other things, to “not pose an unreasonable public safety risk.”
  • Suspending an array of financial obligations – from credit card payments to auto loans – for 90 days for people affected by the Covid pandemic, and further restricting creditors from lowering consumer credit scores if they do delay debt payments. Others are aimed at the airline and hotel industries related to mandatory refunds for consumers.
  • Expanding disability coverage for public employees affected by Covid and requiring that public university students are made whole for housing credits for the 2020 spring semester disrupted by Covid. Another would give special tax breaks to Covid first responders, and another provides for delays in payments for residents who qualify to make quarterly payments on their local property taxes.

The Legislature is eyeing a return possibly in mid-May, though voting – for 2020 – does not have to be physically done in the chambers; lawmakers can vote from their hotels in Albany or even from back in their districts.

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