Try listening to the story instead of reading it!

A legislative column by Assemblyman Robert Smullen (R,C,Ref-Meco)

After a two-month hiatus, the Assembly finally reconvened for two session days in May and June. As expected, the legislative agenda reflected the current public issues of COVID-19 and law enforcement reforms.

COVID-19 legislation was the overarching topic of discussion in May and law enforcement reforms were the focus in June. While the atmosphere and logistics around “virtual” session were obviously different, the resulting mix of good, bad and ugly legislation was similar to what we might see at the end of a typical session.

In the good category, a whistleblower bill was passed to protect healthcare employees with complaints of employer violations of regulations from being penalized. Another bill requires residential healthcare facilities to prepare annual pandemic emergency plans. As the governor’s policy directives and procedures for nursing home residents during the pandemic were clearly misguided, passage of these bills will minimize the need for emergency intervention in the future.

Other positive legislation related to the pandemic gave local governments the ability to defer property tax payments, extend the expiration date of building permits by 120 days and extend renewals for public bond anticipation notes. In addition, a state disaster emergency loan program to be administered by local Industrial Development Agencies (IDAs) was established. This provides IDAs with the flexibility to support small businesses and non-profits during public health emergencies.

In June, I supported several sensible law enforcement reforms, including legislation to protect New York State Police by wearing body cameras at all times, and another bill affirming the right of New Yorkers to record the actions of law enforcement officers with certain exceptions.

In the bad column, the Democrats in charge of the Assembly blocked several amendments offered by my colleagues in the Republican Conference. Chief among them was an attempt to restore legislative checks and balances for emergency declarations exceeding 45 days and to ensure judicial due process in the event constitutional rights are affected. As a co-equal branch of government, the Legislature should place reasonable bounds on any extraordinary emergency powers granted to the governor.

The Democrats also blocked an amendment to require the Department of Health to study the impact of COVID-19 on residents and staff at nursing homes. An amendment to provide a tax credit to property owners for lost rental income due to the pandemic suffered the same fate.

I would characterize the frenzied rush to produce and pass certain bills as the ugly part of the virtual session days in May and June. Many of the bills were necessary to address immediate concerns surrounding the pandemic and law enforcement reform, but others would have benefited from public hearings where stakeholders can provide public testimony. Like bail reform last year, I expect there will be unintended consequences and a need to revisit some issues.

While the virtual sessions were necessary in the face of this health crisis, they are not an effective or efficient way to conduct legislative business. They should definitely not become part of the “new normal,” and should be used only in the most extraordinary circumstances.

Because this year’s legislative session was severely limited by the pandemic, I expect we will return to Albany at some point during the summer to deal with unfinished budget issues. As we continue to recover from the pandemic and the resulting shutdown, I hope policies to promote economic growth, reduce regulatory red tape and ease some of the financial burdens now facing many of our citizens and businesses will find their way on to the priority list.

Assemblyman Robert Smullen represents the 118th Assembly District, which includes Hamilton and Fulton counties as well as parts of Herkimer, Oneida, and St. Lawrence counties.