ALBANY — The legislature is set to "return" to the State Capitol on Wednesday to kick off a 2021 session that promises to be unlike any other.
Though some lawmakers actually will be in Albany as Gov. Andrew M. Cuomo delivers the annual State of the State address, there will be little to none of the usual pomp because of the COVID-19 pandemic. And some won’t be returning physically, but virtually through the use of technology.
The usual ambitious list of policy proposals? They won’t go away but they could be trimmed as most of the action will be tied to the virus.
And the elephant in the room will be the state’s $8 billion budget shortfall triggered by the virus. Or $15 billion projected over two years, as Cuomo describes it.
"Everything we do in 2021 is going to be related to the pandemic," Assemb. Fred Thiele (I-Sag Harbor) said. "The budget issues that come from COVID are going to dominate the legislature’s actions. How does the state meet its obligations — that is going to dominate everything."
"It’s really going to be crisis management," Sen. James Gaughran (D-Northport).
Add to the mix more than 40 new members in the Democratic-controlled Senate and Assembly. On the Assembly side, a number of "old guard" members were ousted by younger, more liberal competitors, which could push the agenda leftward.
On the Senate side, Democrats achieved a two-thirds "supermajority" (43 of 63 seats) which strengthens their hand in negotiating with Cuomo and gives them the possibility of overriding any vetoes. But they also increased their number of upstate Democrats, which could temper any shifts to the political left.
In addition, some of the adjustments made last spring when the virus hit will continue: "Virtual" committee meetings and hearings and a closed-off Capitol, devoid of the thousands of activists, protesters and lobbyists that in years past filled the building when the legislature was in.
"It’s going to be different in a lot of ways," Assemb. Kimberly Jean-Pierre (D-Wheatley Heights) said. "But to be honest, we don’t feel like we’ve ever left. I think people are eager to come back because you hear the stories of struggling constituents. But what are we coming back to, because there’s no money."
The governor and legislators largely avoided taking dramatic action on the budget in 2020. They approved a budget with no spending cuts while waiting for help from Washington.
Cuomo, given extraordinary emergency powers by the legislature to deal with pandemic, withheld 20% of funding to most programs to avoid cash flow problems.
While the previously approved federal stimulus packages channeled money to schools, transit systems, unemployment benefits and other needs, New York is still asking for direct aid to state and local governments.
The governor says he is hoping President-elect Joe Biden, a fellow Democrat, will come through. But he has warned that New York still might have to enact a combination of spending cuts, tax hikes and "revenue raisers," such as legalization of marijuana.
"Realistically speaking, the end result has to involve three elements: The revenue side, the spending side and Washington," Assemb. Edward Ra (R-Franklin Square), the ranking Republican on the powerful Ways and Means Committee, said.
Lawmakers are bracing.
"Instead of making a pessimistic budget with cuts right away, we made an optimistic budget," Gaughran said. "I’m glad we did not do cuts then … but now we’re hoping we can minimize whatever cuts there are."
"Right now, we’re trying to figure out how to not cut anything," Sen. Todd Kaminsky (D-Long Beach) said. "It may take a lot of ingenuity."
Besides marijuana, the legislature is considering legalizing online sports betting, taxing certain stock-market transactions and high-end condos, and raising income-tax rates on high earners, such as those who earn $2 million or $5 million or more annually.
Assembly Speaker Carl Heastie (D-Bronx) has been out front calling for lawmakers to hike income taxes sooner than later as a way to begin tackling the deficit. He wanted them to convene in December to do so, but Cuomo tamped down the idea, saying it could be done by the state’s April 1 budget deadline.
Other COVID-19-related bills also will get early attention.
For example, Sen. Anna Kaplan (D-North Hempstead) already has introduced an anti-eviction bill to cover certain commercial tenants and small business owners. It mirrors a law Cuomo signed Tuesday to cover residential tenants who fell behind on rent because of the pandemic.
After the budget is resolved, there will be opportunities to take up proposed legislation on the environment, small business, health care, nontraceable so-called ghost guns and other topics, lawmakers said.
Several Long Island representatives said water quality proposals will be a top priority — whether dealing with contamination issues and the possible public takeover of New York American Water, a primarily Nassau County-based water system.
In addition, another key Island issue is the March 31 deadline the Long Island Power Authority has set for renegotiating a contract with PSEG for managing the region’s power grid. LIPA recently filed a $70 million breach-of-contract lawsuit against PSEG Long Island for what it called the company's "grossly negligent" performance during Tropical Storm Isaias.
The issue could be the subject of half a dozen legislative bills or more, lawmakers said.
"We need to be ready for which way the future of Long Island electricity will go," Kaminsky said. "Either as municipally-run or folded into a new relationship with PSEG."
PSEG took over the grid just six years ago, after the previous operator, National Grid, was booted because of poor performance. Some lawmakers are warning against repeating the cycle.
"We really need a plan for the long term," Ra said, "so that every time a major storm comes along we don’t fire the operator and end up with the same thing every five or six years."