Sens. Benjamin (left) and Rivera (with New York Health Act co-author Assemblyman Richard Gottfried) are members of the Democratic majority in the Senate that pushed through a raft of ambitious legislation last year and now is debating how to react to COVID-19
If can seem like the legislative branch of New York State government ground to a halt once the COVID-19 crisis struck and the budget was done. But this is the period of the year in Albany when most of the action occurs behind closed doors, or in a hearing here and there, as the legislative agenda careens toward the end of session toward the end of June. While the work hasn’t been especially visible this spring, Sen. Brian Benjamin told WBAI’s Max & Murphy Show on Wednesday, that doesn’t mean it hasn’t occurred.
“One of the things that folks probably weren’t aware of is that we were working. Our teams were processing all the bills we had, working with the Assembly, working with the executive to try to talk through different options,” Benjamin, a Democrat representing a chunk of upper Manhattan, said. “It may feel like to some people, ‘Oh wow, we just showed up and here are a bunch of bills.’ It’s almost like when someone shows up with a great first album, and say, ‘Oh my God, it came out of nowhere,’ well they didn’t come out of nowhere, they have been working for years and you are just now seeing them.”
“We can’t legislate and manage ourselves through social media. Some people may feel like we haven’t been active legislatively but that’s just not the case.”
Benjamin pointed to a bill passed on Wednesday extending the eviction moratorium, and to another vote expected Thursday on a $100 million voucher program for landlords whose tenants lost income as a result of COVID-19.
Benjamin acknowledged that the $100 million amount would not solve the problem of renters who have lost jobs and receive insufficient income support. “Anyone who believes federal support isn’t essential here is fooling themselves,” he said. “The scale of this problem is going to require federal relief.”
Sen. Gustavo Rivera, a Democrat representing the west Bronx, said it’s more than just additional funding that New York needs: a broader vision is also necessary, he said, to address the inequities and systemic shortcomings that the criss has exposed. In other words, it’s time to finally move towards universal healthcare—which the New York Health Act, which Rivera and Manhattan Assemblyman Richard Gottfried, have championed for years.
“This demonstrates that the New York Health act to guarantee universal access to healthcare is even more clearly needed. For people who say that it’s too complicated and too expensive, I would argue that it is neither as expensive or as complicated as the situation we find ourselves in right now,” he said. “The folks who are undocumented in my neighborhood who are still afraid to even go and get tested even though they might be sick, the individuals around New York State who are insured right now and yet have to fight with their insurance companies to be able to get covered. To these folks, they don’t have the appetite for it, they have a need for it. At this moment right now, I do not believe this is our opportunity to do these things but our obligation to propose bolder solutions.”
Rivera also said the legislature needed to reset the balance of power with the governor.
“We need to change the parameters of power of the governor around the budget and that requires a constitutional amendment,” he said. “It’ll be a couple of years but it is absolutely necessary that we get that done this year for next year because then we pass it next year and then it goes to the public.”
Hear either conversation or the full show below:
Sen. Brian Benjamin on lawmaking in Albany amid COVID-19
Sen. Gustavo Rivera on the need to healthcare and governing reform
Max & Murphy Full Show of May 27, 2020
With reporting by Ben Max and Anika Chowdhury