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State legislature meets amid new social distancing rules, passes quarantine sick leave

New York State Senate

New York state lawmakers voted in nearly empty chambers Wednesday on bills -- including one to give quarantined New Yorkers paid sick leave -- as they adopted new meeting rules to limit spreading the novel coronavirus.

Meanwhile, the chief sponsor of the bill to legalize adult use of recreational marijuana said it likely will not be in the budget plan for now.

In the Senate, just five lawmakers were present: the Democratic and Republican leaders, presiding president of the Senate and the two floor leaders, along with three staff members. 

Minority Leader John Flanagan said even in the dark days after 9/11, the Legislature was able to meet together in a joint session.

“I’ve been here a long time; never been in a chamber like this,” Flanagan said. “I'm looking at my four colleagues here. We are literally representative of every one of our members who genuinely want to be here.”

Flanagan skipped partisan rhetoric to praise Gov. Andrew Cuomo for providing daily briefings on the virus and for what he said is the governor’s helpful staff. And he pledged to work with Senate Democrats. 

Senate Leader Andrea Stewart-Cousins said it’s important to demonstrate to the people of New York that government is continuing to function. 

“I hope (it) assures every single person in our state that we are at work and we will not rest,” said Stewart-Cousins.

She said she wants to help small businesses affected by closures, and support front-line health workers as well as children home from school. 

The measures approved will immediately offer paid sick leave to New Yorkers who are quarantined or have household members who are quarantined. Cuomo signed the bill into law Wednesday evening. A more comprehensive paid sick leave bill is still under negotiation. 

Legislators also voted to limit the number of signatures required for petitioning for candidates on the June 23 primary ballot, and they approved one state budget bill on debt service.

Assembly Speaker Carl Heastie spoke to reporters; he said the two members sick with the coronavirus, Helene Weinstein and Charles Barron, are both improving. 

“I speak to them every day, they both say they are feeling better, they are doing better,” said Heastie. “They want to thank everyone for their well wishes.”

It seems increasingly likely that lawmakers will opt for a bare-bones budget, without some of the additional items proposed earlier in the year.

Senate Finance Committee Chair Liz Krueger, who is also the prime sponsor of a bill to legalize cannabis, told public television’s "New York Now" that the provision is on hold. 

“I do not believe that marijuana is going to be negotiated in this budget in the next few days,” Kruger said. “I just don’t see it as realistic.”

Meanwhile, a group of lawmakers and advocates, including the Legislature’s two health committee chairs, are asking that the lawmakers put the brakes on a move to roll back the state’s bail reform laws. The laws ended most forms of cash bail on Jan. 1.

A backlash to the new rules among law enforcement and some legislators led Democrats in the Senate to propose giving judges more discretion. Under the proposal, judges could hold more defendants before trial if the accused presents a danger to the community or is at risk of committing more crimes if set free. In exchange, all cash bail would end.

Assembly Health Committee Chair Richard Gottfried said adding more people to the jail population right now would worsen the public health crisis. 

“One extra good thing our bail reform has done is keep more people out of that pot of bubbling contagion,” Gottfried said.

Heastie said the majority of Assembly Democrats are still not on board with changing bail reform.

A prisoner at Rikers Island and an employee at the Sing Sing state prison have come down with the virus, and prisoners’ rights advocates are asking that elderly and sick inmates be released. 

Cuomo and the Legislature have not yet agreed to the outlines of the budget, at a time when state revenues are plummeting. It’s unlikely lawmakers will be voting on a full spending plan for at least several more days.

Karen DeWitt is Capitol Bureau Chief for New York State Public Radio, a network of 10 public radio stations in New York State. She has covered state government and politics for the network since 1990.