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Assembly workgroup recommends bringing state legislature into the 21st century

Think back to the last time you or someone you know bought a full set of hard-copy encyclopedias. It’s probably been years or maybe even a couple of decades. While practices like that are considered outdated, the New York State Assembly hasn’t quite caught up with the times. New recommendations are looking to change that.

Each month, Assembly offices across the state receive full sets of hardbound, printed copies of the latest New York State laws. It’s something the Assembly’s Workgroup on Legislative Process, Operations, and Public Participation is looking to fix, according to Assemblyman Sean Ryan who is a member of the group. Ryan said the practice is “very expensive to maintain.”

The workgroup – which was tasked to assess the Assembly’s operations by Speaker Carl Heastie in the wake of former Speaker Sheldon Silver’s ouster – published a lengthy list of recommendations for change on Thursday. One of them is getting rid of as much paper and hard copy as possible.

“We’re going to come away from this system, and we’re going to use the online only for this,” said Ryan. “If a member [of the Assembly] needs a book, we can get the book. But we’re no longer buying a complete set of New York State Laws for every office, and that alone is going to save hundreds of thousands of dollars.”

The hefty savings is part of what will contribute to the cost of upgrades for the Assembly. Going as paperless as possible fits in with the overall theme of the recommendations, leveraging technology to get out of what Ryan described as a 20-year “time warp.”

Wifi connections will be made available to the public in Assembly buildings in Albany, the Assembly website will be updated, and online systems will make legislative voting results available as they happen. Online means will also be used to make public Assembly committee meetings even more public.

“It’s open to the public but that means you have to come to Albany to be part of that,” explained Ryan. “As you know, that’s far away for a lot of people, especially advocates from Western New York. So we are now going to provide audio and visual recordings of the committee meetings. So if you want to watch a debate in a committee meeting on a certain issue, you don’t have to come to Albany more. You can stay home and you can watch it there.”

Some notable changes in procedure are also included in the workgroup’s recommendations. Under the current practices, Ryan said that if a bill proposed in any given year passes the assembly but doesn’t pass the Senate before the end of the calendar year, the bill may have to be restarted from scratch.

“So with the change that we’re going to be implementing now, if a bill passes in year one of a term, it will stay a live bill and actionable for two years. Otherwise you would sometimes find yourself getting bounced around where we ran out of time at the end of session, we did your bill, but the senate couldn’t do it,” said Ryan.

Ryan said the Assembly is pushing the Senate to adopt the same lifecycle rules, as well. He said if the Senate does not adopt them, the Assembly will go forward with the changes for itself either way.

Assembly expenditures will also be made public and available online, begging the question – how much will these new upgrades actually cost?

“We’re still breaking down the cost,” said Ryan. “But I would just ask you to keep in mind that we are doing this all under our current budget. We think the technology is actually going to be a great savings to us; that updating our technology is actually going to cost less than maintaining the antiquated paper system.”

Ryan said some of the changes will be mandatory to vote on, and others will simply be implemented through changes in management. The workgroup will continue assessments even after the first round of recommendations are implemented.

Avery began his broadcasting career as a disc jockey for WRUB, the University at Buffalo’s student-run radio station.