ALBANY — Common Cause New York, a nonpartisan organization that lobbies for good government, is calling on New York legislators to give up half their salaries “for doing half their job” since they approved a budget in April amid the coronavirus pandemic — and then largely shut down their session.
“Why should New Yorkers pay lawmakers $110,000 — in the middle of a budget deficit — to do only half their jobs?” said Susan Lerner, executive director of New York’s 68,000-member Common Cause. “Voters elect our representatives to legislate for six months out of the year and handle constituent services, not one or the other. If they are so intent on shirking their responsibilities and not resuming session remotely, then their paycheck should reflect that.”
The group noted that the New York City Council, operating in the nation’s hardest-hit city from COVID-19 infections and deaths, have conducted 20 hearings and passed five bills using remote legislating. The state Legislature, despite have the ability to resume its legislative session using remote technology, has conducted two hearings in the past two months.
Legislators have declined to provide a firm timeline for resuming their session remotely. Assembly Speaker Carl E. Heastie and Senate Majority Leader Andrew Stewart-Cousins both recently declined to be interviewed about the Legislature’s plans.
According to Common Cause, the Legislature is equipped to do its job remotely and that 10 years ago the Senate’s technology systems were transformed to enable legislators to work remotely, including adding webmail systems and workflow management software applications.
The call by Common Cause for lawmakers to resume their session was buttressed by numerous statements from members of the Senate and Assembly who agree it is time for their work to resume.
“In the wake of a public health crisis, our frontline workers aren’t protected by their employers – many times by choice, sometimes by chance – and it’s time we get back to work and pass laws that could protect and save thousands of lives. Who will protect these workers if our government won’t?” said State Sen. Jessica Ramos, D-Queens.
State Sen. Alessandra Biaggi, D-Bronx, said lawmakers are “working nonstop” to help their constituents but said long-term solutions for helping people get through the pandemic require legislation.
“There are a number of urgent bills that can help our communities, including my Healthy Terminals Act to provide access to affordable healthcare for our essential airport workers, but we cannot get any of them done until the legislature goes back into session,” Biaggi said. “It is our job as public servants to fight for the rights and safety of the people we represent – we must let the legislators legislate.”
State Sen. James Skoufis, D-Newburgh, who has recovered from COVID-19, said is is “essential” for government to resume its work.
“I stand with my like-minded colleagues in the Legislature and Common Cause New York in calling for session to proceed,” he said. “If necessary, we have the authority to vote remotely; regardless, we must meet the fundamental obligations and expectations that we are elected to fulfill.”
None of the legislators who support Common Cause’s request for the session to resume weighed in on the suggested pay cut. The proposal was also endorsed by multiple candidates for public office and advocacy groups.
“The New York legislature maintains more sophisticated and well-resourced technology organizations than most states, and I’m confident that they could readily add affordable off-the-shelf software applications where needed to support these elected bodies in being fully operational while working remotely during this time,” said Andrew Hoppin, a former chief information officer for the state Senate. “Some of these new tools and methods, potentially coupled with some enabling changes to policies and procedures, might even prove to add further efficiency and transparency to the work of these bodies, such that they could be maintained after this crisis is over.”