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December state legislative session not ruled out

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Now that elections are over, leaders of the New York State Legislature are facing pressure from a wide range of groups to reconvene and deal with pandemic-related economic problems. Legislative leaders say they are not ruling it out.

Sixty-three politically progressive advocacy groups have written a letter to legislative leaders, asking them to hold an emergency session before 2020 ends.

Cea Weaver with Housing Justice for All, one of the groups that signed the letter, said COVID-19 cases are again on the upswing, and no new federal aid has come from Congress since last April. She also said New Yorkers who are struggling to find or keep their jobs and pay rent need more help from their state government.

“The Legislature has not met since June or July,” Weaver said. “We’re working with families who have no idea how they are going to pay next month’s rent, who have no idea how … they are going to feed their families.”

Weaver said they situation is growing very “urgent.”

“We need the Legislature to go back to work and do their job,” she said.



The state has a $15 billion budget deficit, much of it pandemic-related, and Gov. Andrew Cuomo has for months “temporarily” held back 20% of state aid due to schools and local governments.

Weaver said Cuomo has made it clear that he is the “austerity governor,” and she believes the Legislature ceded too much power to him over the past several months. She said instead of spending cuts, new taxes should be imposed on the state’s billionaires and multi-millionaires, who have done well financially during the pandemic.

Cuomo is against the idea, saying the rich will just leave the state. But Senate Leader Andrea Stewart-Cousins and Assembly Speaker Carl Heastie, both Democrats, support imposing new taxes on the wealthy.

“The only time we’ve ever been able to get Cuomo to do anything is when Andrea Stewart-Cousins and Carl Heastie come together and make it clear that it’s a priority for them,” Weaver said.

Greg Biryla with the New York state chapter of the National Federation of Independent Businesses said even if the Legislature does not come back for a session this year, he’d like to see lawmakers talk about how to help small businesses that have suffered economic losses during the pandemic.

He said many employers worry about an expected spike in unemployment insurance payments in the spring after government health orders forced businesses to close for several months, triggering a year of unprecedented layoffs.

“We are going to see small businesses starting to plot their path forward, looking to grow, looking to hire, and they are going to be hammered with new costs and new taxes related to layoffs that were simply not their fault,” Biryla said. “The New York State Legislature and leadership in Albany need to be thinking about it now.”

Stewart-Cousins, speaking recently on public radio’s The Capitol Pressroom, said the Legislature had no plans to meet again in what is known as a post-election “lame duck” session.

“Is there any definitive plans to have a lame duck session? No, there isn’t,” Stewart-Cousins said on Nov. 12.

Stewart-Cousins said now that Democrat Joe Biden is the president-elect, she, like Cuomo, would like to wait to see if he can persuade Congress to enact a federal relief package that will close the state’s deficit. Democrats in the House have approved an over $2 trillion plan that would give $33 billion to New York’s state and local governments to cope with pandemic-related losses. Republicans in the U.S. Senate have not taken up the measure, but Biden backs the bill.

“It is much more promising than having Donald Trump, who was clearly an adversary,” Stewart-Cousins said.

A spokesman for Stewart-Cousins, Mike Murphy, later clarified that the Senate leader is not ruling out a session of the Legislature next month.

Heastie, in a tweet, said that to be “clear,” the Assembly Democrats “have not ruled out a return to session this year to address the fiscal health of our state.”

Karen Dewitt is the Albany correspondent for WXXI News, a media partner of CITY. She can be reached at kdewitt@wxxi.org.
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