The Senate and Assembly returned to session this week for their end of session wrap-up. As with all things 2020, it was an unusual end of session. The end of session would usually occur during the last week of the scheduled legislative session. This year, the end of session should have occurred the first week of June. Instead, the Senate and Assembly have been using their ability to convene remotely to hold committee meetings and session to address a variety of outstanding legislative issues. This has meant that the usual fervor pitch of end of session, marked by a lot of activity and often intense negotiations, has been missing.
Even without the traditional end of session, the two houses passed hundreds of bills addressing topics ranging from local hotel and motel taxes to approving individual pension adjustments to authorizing a host of local laws. In another unusual development, the majority of the bills passed were mainly legislative and not the usual three-way negotiated bills on major legislative priorities that we usually see at the end of session. Even without the traditional negotiations, there was legislative action on many key issues.
For example, there were several election law reform bills passed during this session. There were bills passed to address issues that arose as a result of the unprecedented number of absentee ballots that were submitted for the June primary elections. These bills include giving the Board of Elections a longer time to process ballots and a new right to cure provision to reduce the number of hyper-technical issues that can declare a ballot invalid. The two houses also passed a bill to allow for automatic voter registration, which will automatically register people to vote when they interact with a variety of state agencies, unless they affirmatively opt out of the registration, and a bill making several changes to the independent redistricting commission.
The legislature passed other legislation of note including bills that will allow drivers to pay traffic fines and fees on installment in order to prevent them from losing their driver’s licenses and one that prohibits schools from using facial recognition software. On the health care front, the legislature passed legislation that will rollback healthcare immunity provisions that were passed as part of the final negotiated budget. The provision that was included in the budget provided liability protections for health care facilities and medical professionals for any treatment rendered during COVID-19. The new bill narrows the immunity provisions for health care facilities and medical professionals to only situations where direct care was provided related to COVID-19.
While this session allowed both houses to pass a host of legislation and tie up many loose ends, it is anticipated that they will be back again soon to deal with the state budget issues. The state is facing mid-year budget cuts of up to 20% across the board because of lost revenue and expenses related to COVID-19. Right now, all eyes are on Washington, DC, as Congress prepares the next round of federal stimulus funding.
The state and localities have stated that the federal stimulus bill must include funding to address their budget shortfalls. At this point, the federal bill is still being negotiated, so we do not know what will be included in the final version. If there is funding for state and localities, the two houses will be back to help make decisions on how this money will be allocated. If there isn’t funding, then the two houses will be back to make decisions on budgetary cuts and potential revenue raisers that the state can explore. Two particular revenue raisers that may be closely considered when they return again to deal with budget items are online sports betting and legalization of recreational marijuana as both have the potential to raise significant revenue for the state.
In the midst of this end of session push, we also received news of several primary elections that had still not been decided. These races were being very closely watched because long term Democratic majority members of the Assembly had faced spirited primary challenges from young challenges who mostly identified as Democratic Socialists. In the end, there were six major upsets in these primary challenges. The upset that sent the most shockwaves through Albany is that of Assemblyman Joe Lentol, who has served his Brooklyn district for 48 years and is chair of the Assembly Codes Committee.
These primary upsets, combined with other announced departures and retirements, means that there will be at least 19 new members of the Democratic majority in the Assembly next year. Given the departure of Assemblyman Lentol, and several other members in high ranking leadership positions, it also means that we should see significant churn in the leadership and committee chair positions next year. We will be tracking this closely as we head into the 2021 legislative session.
Finally, we just wanted to provide a few Un-PAUSE updates. As of Monday, July 20, New York City entered Phase 4 of reopening, which means the entire state is now in Phase 4. New York City’s Phase 4 reopening came with the caveat that indoor activities, dining, malls, etc., are still not authorized. In addition, the Governor announced that bars cannot serve patrons unless they are ordering food and seated. This was done to clarify the existing regulations and to address the large gatherings from around the state of younger individuals at bars and clubs. The Governor also announced on Tuesday that 9 more states had been added to the list of states covered by the travel advisory bringing the total number of states covered to 31. Up to date details on the advisory can be found here.
If you have additional questions about this update or any other developments that are happening as New York continues to Un-PAUSE, please reach out to a member of our Government Affairs practice group for assistance: