BUFFALO, NY (WBFO) – New York state lawmakers voted in nearly empty chambers Wednesday on bills, including one to give quarantined New Yorkers paid sick leave, as they adopted new meeting rules to limit spreading the corona virus. Meanwhile, the chief sponsor of the bill to legalize adult use of recreational marijuana says it likely will not be in the budget plan for now.
In the Senate, just five lawmakers were present, the Democratic and Republican leaders, presiding president of the Senate, the two floor leaders, and with three staff members.
Minority Leader John Flanagan says even in the dark days after 9/11, the legislature was able to meet together in a joint session.
“I’ve been here a long time, never been in chamber like this,” Flanagan said. “We are literally representative of every one of our members who genuinely want to be here.”
Flanagan skipped partisan rhetoric to praise Governor Andrew Cuomo for providing daily briefings on the virus and for what he says is the governor’s helpful staff. And he pledged to work with Senate Democrats.
Senate Leader Andrea Stewart-Cousins says it’s important to demonstrate to the people of New York that government is continuing to function.
“I hope [it] assures every single person in our state that we are at work and we will not rest,” said Stewart-Cousins who said she wants to help small businesses effected by closures, and support front line health workers as well as children home from school.
The measures approved will immediately offer paid sick leave to New Yorkers who are quarantined or have household members who are quarantined. A more comprehensive paid sick leave bill is still under negotiation.
Legislators also voted to limit the number of signatures required for petitioning for candidates on the June 23 primary ballot, and they approved one state budget bill on debt service.
Assembly Speaker Carl Heastie spoke to reporters, where he said the two members were sick with the coronavirus, Helene Weinstein and Charles Barron, are both improving.
“I speak to them every day, they both say they are feeling better, they are doing better,” said Heastie. “They want to thank everyone for their well wishes.”
It seems increasing likely that lawmakers will opt for a bare bones budget, without some of the additional items proposed earlier in the year.
The Senate Finance Committee Chair Liz Krueger, who is also the prime sponsor of a bill to legalize cannabis, told public TV’s New York Now that the provision is on hold.
“I do not believe that marijuana is going to be negotiated in this budget in the next few days,” Kruger said. “I just don’t see it as realistic.”
Meanwhile, a group of lawmakers and advocates, including the legislature’s two health committee chairs, are asking that the lawmakers put the brakes on a move to roll back the state’s bail reform laws.
The laws ended most forms of cash bail on Jan. 1. A backlash to the new rules among law enforcement and some legislators led Democrats in the Senate to propose giving judges more discretion.
Under the proposal, judges could hold more defendants pre-trial if the accused presents a danger to the community or are at risk of committing more crimes if set free. In exchange, all cash bail would end.
Assembly Health Committee Chair Richard Gottfried says adding more people to the jail population right now would worsen the public health crisis.
“One extra good thing our bail reform has done is keep people out of that bubbling pot of contagion,” Gottfried said.
Speaker Heastie says the majority of Assembly Democrats are still not on board with changing bail reform.
A prisoner at Rikers Island and an employee at the Sing Sing state prison have come down with the virus, and prisoners’ rights advocates are also asking that elderly and sick inmates be released.
Gov. Andrew Cuomo and the legislature have not yet agreed to the outlines of the budget, at a time when state revenues are plummeting. It is unlikely lawmakers will be voting on a full spending plan for at least several more days.