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2021 state legislative session begins as pandemic worsens


The New York State Legislature began the 2021 session with a strengthened Democratic base and intensifying challenges, including the ongoing pandemic and the growing budget deficit. 

2021 is starting out a lot like most of 2020. As they have since March, most state lawmakers met remotely on Wednesday, and that practice will continue as the pandemic in New York again worsens.

Only the legislative leaders and a few key lawmakers and staff were in the Senate and Assembly chambers at any one time for the day’s proceedings.

They included Senate Leader Andrea Stewart-Cousins, who was sworn in by Lt. Gov. Kathy Hochul for a second term as leader. She addressed the nearly empty chamber, acknowledging the 1 million New Yorkers who have contracted COVID-19 and the more than 38,000 who died.

“Here is New York, tens of thousands of our family members, friends, colleagues and constituents have died, businesses have closed, jobs have been lost,” Stewart-Cousins said. “People are hurting. We are a changed state, and we’re a changed nation.”

Stewart-Cousins begins the term with 43 members in her majority conference and the first Democratic supermajority ever in the state Senate. Deputy Majority Leader Michael Gianaris ran the Democrats’ successful election campaigns in November.  

“We stand here today with the largest majority in the almost 250-year history of the New York State Senate,” Gianaris said, “of any party.”

The Assembly has long held a supermajority of Democrats, and Assembly Speaker Carl Heastie was reelected to a fourth term.

Both houses now have the ability to override any potential vetoes of legislation issued by Gov. Andrew Cuomo. 

Another carry-over from 2020 is th e state’s multibillion-dollar budget gap. Stewart-Cousins laid out some priorities for closing the deficit, including imposing new taxes on the state’s wealthiest, saying the state’s finances are “in desperate shape.”

Cuomo announced that proposals to expand sports betting and to legalize the adult use of recreational marijuana will be part of his budget plan, which will be released later this month.  The two measures could bring in a combined total of $800 million in new revenues.

Cuomo, along with Stewart-Cousins, is hopeful that President-elect Joe Biden, once he’s inaugurated, will work with the newly Democratic-led Congress after the two Senate wins in Georgia, to craft a federal relief package to help states hit hard by the pandemic. The governor said New York is owed.

“You took $30 billion from us, and abused us, and victimized us,” Cuomo said. “And we are an economic engine for the nation.” 

Republicans in the state Senate, after dominating the chamber for most of a century until 2019, now hold just 20 seats; seven of them are freshmen. Many long-serving GOP members chose not to seek reelection.

Senate Minority Leader Robert Ortt, laying out the GOP agenda one day before the session began, said he expects Republicans to play a role as the “loyal opposition” and present an alternative vision of how to run the state. Ortt said his goals include reasserting the role of the Legislature in governing during the pandemic.

He said the Senate and Assembly have taken a back seat to the governor. Cuomo was granted special emergency authority by the Legislature when the pandemic began to govern the state and make unilateral spending decisions in the state’s budget.   

“We are well past the time where one person should be governing the state and coming up with policies in response to the most significant public health crisis this state and this country has faced in our lifetimes,” he said. 

A spokesman for the governor, Rich Azzopardi, said the Legislature can overturn any of the governor’s orders through a joint resolution, and he accused the GOP leader of “pandering.”  

The 2021 session continues Monday, when Cuomo is set to deliver his State of the State message.

Karen DeWitt is Capitol Bureau Chief for New York State Public Radio, a network of 10 public radio stations in New York State. WBFO listeners are accustomed to hearing DeWitt’s insightful coverage throughout the day, including expanded reports on Morning Edition.
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