Engulfed in its own smoky haze of inaction and partisan self-interest, the New York State Legislature left Albany this weekend with disappointingly little to show for its outrageously limited time at work.
In one of the most unproductive legislative sessions in recent memory, state lawmakers failed to accomplish anything on critical issues like increasing the housing supply and more broadly reducing the cost of living in the Empire State. With the budget a month late, and the session already scheduled to end weeks earlier than it has historically, lawmakers found themselves with just over a month to actually do what they're paid to do: legislate.
When they finally scrambled over the last week or two, their work happened mostly behind closed doors, making it impossible for anyone else to have a say in key policies regarding criminal justice, climate change, housing, elections and more.
This isn't how the legislature should operate.
The opacity of the process, lack of opportunity for public input and debate, and middle-of-the-night decision-making result in policy that isn't thoughtful, measured or meaningful. It's the hallmark of a last-minute rush to get something — anything — done, even if it's the wrong thing. And once the last votes are taken, our lawmakers head home, reminding us that they are part-timers who do the work of the state for less than half the year.
HIGH PAY, LITTLE WORK
For those lackluster efforts, for a paltry 60 days of in-session work over the course of five months, our lawmakers earn $142,000 — more than any other state legislature in the nation.
That translates into being paid $2,367 per day while in Albany, in addition to their other stipends. Certainly, lawmakers do work year-round in their districts, but the heart of the job is the session in Albany.
Albany's most crucial failure this year came in housing. After her aborted budget attempt to circumvent local zoning, Gov. Kathy Hochul seemed to wash her hands of the all-important issue. In the waning days, a small group of lawmakers tried to revive it, developing proposals on tenants rights and incentives for suburban housing planning and production. There was some brief momentum among legislators who hoped they had made enough progress to make a deal with Hochul, albeit in a secretive, last-play-of-the-game way.
By Thursday, housing was dead again, after Hochul and some state senators pushed back, particularly on the demand of New York City lawmakers that any housing changes must include good cause eviction, which among some good tenant provisions also would have further hampered efforts by small property-owners to get rid of deadbeat renters, while limiting what they could charge in rent.
But as good cause drowned, it took everything else housing-related with it.
The lawmakers who sought a way forward deserve credit for trying. But housing legislation didn't fail solely over good cause eviction. It failed because no one gave the issue the time, attention and depth it required. In the last few days, Hochul and state legislative leaders seemed focused on finger-pointing about the failure, rather than finding a way to the finish line.
And then, time — unsurprisingly — ran out.
This chaotic and undistinguished process repeated itself again and again — in the flawed redistricting maps that had to be redrawn last year, the destructive fights over appointments to the state's top court, a late budget, and the truncated legislative push.
What could have happened with more time and effort? Lawmakers might have been able to better tackle the reform efforts of the Legislative Commission on the Future of the Long Island Power Authority. They might have addressed the handling of plastic waste or the slow pace of building permitting or Industrial Development Agency reform. They might even have held hearings on how state and local governments could be better prepared the next time air quality deteriorates so badly that we have to stay indoors.
Even when the legislature did act in the final hours, the stilted process left little room for robust, public examination of new legislation. Some bills, like the effort known as Clean Slate, which would seal criminal convictions under certain conditions, made sense. Others, like moving local elections to even-numbered years, might not, especially without thinking through the consequences. Allowing larger campaign donations to qualify for campaign public financing only helps incumbent lawmakers.
Until recently, the session stretched into late June, or even into early July — and even that schedule doesn't require full-time pay. If Hochul and legislative leaders truly want to advance the welfare of the state, they should recognize that it requires full-time, year-round work: holding oversight hearings to increase accountability, gathering data and expertise to inform debate and discussion, and writing bills before the eleventh hour that the Assembly and Senate can support and Hochul can sign.
The lawmakers who focused on housing say they hope to use the summer and fall to devise a fresh path forward. That should be the norm.
New Yorkers' most critical needs don't start on Jan. 4 and end on June 9. The work must not, either.
MEMBERS OF THE EDITORIAL BOARD are experienced journalists who offer reasoned opinions, based on facts, to encourage informed debate about the issues facing our community.