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Covid-19 Keeps New York's Capitol Closed in Run-Up to Legislative Session

By Jimmy Vielkind 

Advocacy groups said they are disappointed that the New York state Capitol remains closed to the general public on the eve of a legislative session where lawmakers will consider raising taxes, adjusting the state budget and legalizing marijuana for recreational use.

Gov. Andrew Cuomo, with the support of Democratic leaders of the state Assembly and Senate, closed the Capitol to visitors on March 14 after two state legislators tested positive for the coronavirus.

Access restrictions have remained in place since the spring, and both chambers of the Legislature passed resolutions allowing members to cast their votes remotely. The halls of the Capitol -- normally crowded with besuited lobbyists, chanting protesters, bustling bureaucrats and lawmakers -- were quiet this year, as officials enacted a $178 billion budget and passed laws overhauling policing practices.

The Democratic governor and legislative leaders said in recent weeks that there are no plans to reopen the Capitol, citing the continuing pandemic. Groups who traditionally advocate have had to shift their plans and said they hope officials will invest in digital tools to increase participation.

"To be locked out of the Capitol, essentially, is sort of a shock to my system," said Blair Horner, executive director of the New York Public Interest Research Group, an advocacy group.

The first weeks of January are usually a time of major convening. The Assembly and Senate lay out their priorities for the year. Mr. Cuomo proposes a state budget and delivers a "State of the State" presentation.

Officials expect these events will largely occur in a virtual fashion. On Dec. 9, Mr. Cuomo shifted his Emmy-winning televised press briefings from an in-person exchange with reporters to an online format, citing updated guidance from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.

"If you open the Capitol, then you open yourself to hundreds of people confined in stairwells and people walking around potentially not social distancing," Mr. Cuomo's top aide, Melissa DeRosa, said on Nov. 20. "So it's not something, at this point, we're prepared to do."

An administration spokesman didn't respond to requests for additional comment.

Rebecca Garrard, who campaigns for tenant protection measures on behalf of Citizen Action, said face-to-face encounters with legislators and protests in Capitol hallways are an important part of her group's advocacy efforts.

"The decisions that are made during the 2021 session are literally going to have life-and-death consequences for New Yorkers," she said, including a broader moratorium on the eviction of residential tenants during the pandemic.

Jason McGuire, a lobbyist for evangelical Christian churches, said he usually organized 1,500 people to travel to the Capitol complex in March. The annual advocacy day was canceled in 2020, and next year he is directing people to meet with lawmakers at offices in their respective districts.

"I understand the need for public safety, but it has bothered me from the beginning that if government is essential, then we the people need to have access to legislators," Mr. McGuire said.

Assembly Minority Leader Will Barclay, a Republican from Oswego County, said there was more to participation in government than rallies on the Capitol's interior staircases. He said there has been more focus on virtual meetings with constituents and called on Democrats in his chamber to start webcasting the proceedings of legislative committees. (The state Senate already does so.)

A spokesman for Assembly Speaker Carl Heastie, a Democrat from the Bronx, said in a statement members were "working hard every day talking to their constituents and helping to keep them safe. We, like all New Yorkers, look forward to returning things to normal when it is safe to do so."

Lee Rowland, legislative director for the New York Civil Liberties Union, called on officials to invest in IT infrastructure to ensure mass participation in decision-making -- and then keep those processes in place forever.

"I actually think keeping remote and online access to the legislative process helps reduce the cronyism that comes from physical proximity in the halls of government," she said.

THE QUESTION: Who was the first New York governor to deliver a "State of the State" address in the Capitol? And who was the last?

-- Know the answer? Write me an email!

THE LAST ANSWER: The last time New York's members of the Electoral College cast their lot for their home state governor was in 1948, when they backed then-Gov. Thomas Dewey. He was defeated by President Harry S. Truman, despite what you read in the papers.

Write to Jimmy Vielkind at Jimmy.Vielkind@wsj.com

 

(END) Dow Jones Newswires

December 20, 2020 19:14 ET (00:14 GMT)

Copyright (c) 2020 Dow Jones & Company, Inc.