Today we’re checking in with State Senator Andrew Gounardes. Now into his second term (and seeking a third), Senator Gounardes has been part of a revolutionary period in Albany. The State Senate, under Republican control for nearly a century, has transformed into an uncharacteristic flurry of activity. New bills have been passed left and right. Gounardes, an original member of 2019 Blue Wave, has been through it all.
Now, with nearly fifty (as of recording) bills passed, we sit down with our local State Senator to ask how a bill becomes a law in Albany. Where do the ideas come from? What is the process for writing a bill? How does he manage to keep up during long legislative sessions at the State Capitol?
Join us as we learn how our State Senator accomplishes the one job so many other politicians ignore: legislating.
Quickly jump to key parts of the episode by clicking the links below…
- Passing fifty bills
- Is being a Prime Sponsor important?
- A new Albany
- How to pass a bill in Albany
- Where does a bill begin?
- Drafting the bill
- Tweaking drafts
- Bill naming
- Assigning a committee
- Committee engagement
- Aging on the floor
- The legislative session
- Dealing with controversy
- The Assembly version
- The Governors desk
- Bridging local and state-wide issues
- Andrew’s State Constitution reading list
- Hyper-specific bills
Andrew’s State Constitition reading list
Part way into the episode, Andrew recommends two key books to help understand the New York State constitution. They are…
- Ordered Liberty: A Constitutional History of New York • Find in a library | Buy local
- New York’s Broken Constitution: The Governance Crisis and the Path to Renewed Greatness • Find in a library | Buy local
Bills we mentioned
- SLEEP Act (Senate Bill S784B)
- Freelance Isn’t Free Bill (Senate Bill S8369)
- Pedestrian Safety Ratings System for Motor Vehicles (Senate Bill S7876)
- False Representation in Mailers (Senate Bill S6731A)
- Establishing the genetic child of Wenjian Liu (Senate Bill S4350A)
- Bail Reform legislation relating to hate crimes (Senate Bill S7111 / S7113)
Expand to view the entire show transcript (lightly edited for readability)…
Dan: Hey there and welcome to Radio Free Bay Ridge, your hyper-local progressive podcast focusing exclusively on beautiful Bay Ridge, Brooklyn. And today in beautiful Bay Ridge, Brooklyn, we are not in our studio. We are over at Andrew Gounardes’s office!
Rachel: Hi, Andrew. Thanks for speaking with us today.
Andrew: Hello guys. Thank you. Great to have you here.
Dan: Today we are going to get an overview of your accomplishments over the last three years.
Rachel: Has it been three years since we spoke to you on the podcast before?
Andrew: Probably just a little bit more than that, yeah.
Dan: Wow, yeah. Because we last had you on right before that momentous 2018 election…
Dan: What have you been up to?
Andrew: Well it’s about time someone asked!
Passing fifty bills
Rachel: Because we have a lot to catch up on! Give us the 10,000 foot view. What’s been going on in the office of Senator Gounardes?
Andrew: What hasn’t been going on? It has certainly been an eventful three years since I was sworn in, in January of 2019. I think by most objective measures the work output of the state legislature over the last three years has been extraordinary. By some measures, they are the most productive and prolific legislative sessions in New York’s history. We could probably spend days just going over the totality of accomplishments and things that we’ve done as a legislative body, things that have actually passed into law, and things that we’ve been able to secure.
When you think about three years ago, we didn’t have early voting. We were still fighting for full funding of our public schools, which we finally achieved in last year’s budget. Three years ago the status of the speed camera program was up in the air. We didn’t have congestion pricing. We didn’t have an MTA capital plan that would have brought three new elevators to this neighborhood in the next five years. We didn’t have things like GENDA. Conversion therapy was still allowed in New York State. I can go on and on and on. So many things have happened across the board. I mean, the CLCPA, the Climate Leadership and Community Protection Act, the most far-reaching ambitious climate change legislation of any jurisdiction in this country passed the State Legislature two years ago.
So a lot’s been going on. And I’ve just been so thrilled to have been a part and to continue to be a part of that work. Because when I came into office we promised a lot of change. We promised to change the direction of the state and to really shift things in a different direction. And there’s no doubt that we have done that.
And for my part, I’ve been able to really contribute to that level of productivity. In my three years, I’m incredibly proud of the fact that 50 of my bills have been signed into law.
Rachel: I was gonna say, every time we talk…
Andrew: …the number goes up.
Rachel: … it’s just amazing.
Andrew: Actually, I think technically right now we’re at 49, but we’re waiting for one more. Maybe it will happen while we’re recording this. We’ll see.
Rachel: We’ll check and we’ll be like “Oh, we’re at sixty!”
Andrew: Three years, and we have had 50 measures signed into law. They are now the law of the land. And it’s not just me. It’s because of the work put in by my staff and the advocacy community. I’m incredibly proud of that. 50 is a great number and it’s an ambitious number. And from my perspective we are just getting started.
Is being a Prime Sponsor important?
Dan: And these aren’t merely things you co-sponsored. One of the unique things that we have in you as our State Senator is that you actually write the laws. You do the job you signed up for. You legislate.
Andrew: I mean, look, there’s a spectrum of issues that come before the legislature. It is so great and so massive that you have to divvy up the work. And while it’s important to be the prime sponsor of a lot of these bills, it’s not the end all be all.
For example, I care about the environment, just as many of my colleagues do. But my colleague who’s the chairman of the Environmental Committee, he’s going to take the lead on writing the climate change legislation. I’m happy to support that. I care about it just as much as he did. But I trust that he’s able to manage that process while I focus on issues that come in with my bailiwick.
So there is some credit sharing to go around, but you’re right. To your point, Dan, yes, 50 of these bills have come out of my office. My staff has worked on them. We’ve drafted the bills. We’ve worked with advocates to work on these bills. We’ve shepherded them through the legislative process and I’m incredibly proud of that.
Listeners can’t see, but if you look on the wall here in my office, I have one of the official signed certificates. It is the certificate when the governor signed the speed camera legislation into law on Mother’s Day 2019. A copy of the actual document that he signed with the pen and everything. I have that framed here. I have a whole bunch more framed than my Albany office, but I’m incredibly proud of that one in particular, because transit safety was one of my signature issues. Still is. Street safety and the speed camera program. So having a collection of 50 of those on my wall is a pretty nice thing.
A new Albany
Dan: And Mother’s Day of 2019. You were only in the legislature for a couple of months at that point.
Andrew: Three or four months. Yeah.
Dan: It’s been three years so people might forget. For so long Albany was constantly jammed up. But in 2019 you went in to a radically different Albany.
Andrew: Yeah. I mean, it was certainly my hope that I’d go to a place that would be productive. I don’t want to have this position just to spin my wheels. And the fact that we now have a legislature that is as productive and prolific as it is, is certainly exciting for me because it gives you a lot of opportunities to actually write public policy that makes a difference in people’s lives.
Where does a bill begin?
Rachel: I think when people hear you say, oh, I passed 50 bills. It’s easy to think, “oh, that must be easy”, but it’s much more involved than that. And what’s really interesting to me is that the process between DC and Albany is actually quite different. So I guess the first question is: where does a bill begin?
Dan: We’ll do the School House Rocks version…
Andrew: It’s actually not that far off from reality.
Bills come from anywhere. You know, my staff doesn’t like when I do this, but I’ll read the newspaper and I’ll say, wait, that doesn’t seem right to me. I’ll circle it. Like that scene out of The West Wing when Toby circles an article in the newspaper and writes “we can make college cheaper”. There’s an element of that. Or I’ll see an issue and I’ll send it to my staff saying, “Hey, I’m going to ask you if there’s something here”.
There’s also times where advocacy groups or outside stakeholders will come up with an idea for a bill. They’ll come to me and say, “look, we’ve identified this problem. And we’ve identified a legislative solution. We would like you to work with us and help us change the law to make this happen.” And so in that case, we’ll work with them to take their idea and put it into legislative language and then try to shepherd it through. And what’s nice about that approach is that there’s already a built in constituency that can help create momentum and buzz.
Other times, bills will come to me by virtue of the committee that I chair, which is the Civil Service and Pensions committee. Oftentimes different public sector unions, or the State Comptroller’s office, or the Governor’s office will say, “Hey, look, we have an idea that requires changing the retirement and security law, or the civil service law. You’re the chairman of the committee. We want to talk to you first. Would you consider introducing this bill? Would you consider doing this?”
And then lastly, and this gets to your point, Dan, about Schoolhouse Rock. We get ideas from constituents. You know, one of the bills that I’m really hot on right now is this bill that I’ve proposed about a vehicle safety rating system for big heavy vehicles, which is now actually kind of elevating to a national conversation.
That bill idea came from someone commenting on a Facebook post, a constituent. And I thought, you know what? That actually is a really good point. That’s a good idea. Let’s look into this. And so we took that nugget of an idea and we worked on it. We tweaked it, we expanded it. And now we have this bill that we’re trying to pass.
We got a letter from a constituent last year saying “You know what? I keep getting these things in the mail that are spam mail, but they say all over it ‘official government notice’, ‘second warning’. It’s fraud. Is there something we could do to stop this?” And we looked into it and in fact, it’s not currently illegal in New York to feign official government correspondence! And so we took that problem, which a constituent alerted us to literally in a handwritten letter, and we drafted a bill to address it. We introduced in May of 2021.
Bill ideas come from a variety of sources. I think it’s important just to always listen to people, especially if they’re constituents with an idea or a problem, or even just outside folks who might have expertise in a certain area, and then find ways that we can continue to improve public policy with them. Hand in hand.
Drafting the bill
Dan: So once you have an idea, what is the tweaking process? Who do you have to meet? What meetings do you have to sit through?
Rachel: Do you just come into your office and whip out a pad of paper? And write down…
Andrew: I don’t do it myself… though sometimes I will if I’m a dog with a bone on a specific thing. I’ll go down a rabbit hole of statutory texts, just to find out what I want to do.
But oftentimes what’ll happen is: once we have the idea for a potential bill, I’ll then discuss it with my staff. I have a pretty good sized staff. Two people focus almost exclusively on legislation. My Policy Director, my Legislative Aide, my Chief of Staff, and then my Senior Advisor. We all work on these things jointly.
Once we identify the problem, we’ll see if anyone else has drafted a bill on it. Oftentimes not, but every now and then maybe someone else has already got there first and that’s okay. And then if not we will take what is called an LBD. What it stands for I can’t tell you. Something Legislative…
Rachel: Not little black dress?
Andrew: No. (laughter)
Um, something legislative something draft. LBD. [Editors Note: Legislative Bill Draft] And that basically is a designation from the central legislative drafting office in the legislature that we kind of have claimed this issue and this topic. And once we have the LBD, we can then work on drafting language.
Now in my office, we usually try to take the first crack at drafting legislative language.
It doesn’t have to be that way. We can also submit our idea, literally on the sheet of paper, to the central drafting office. It’s a team of lawyers who are experts at writing bills. We can ask them to draft the language for us. But you then have to wait, because everyone else has got their bills waiting too, and it’s just a longer process. So we try to do it ourselves, if we can. Or at least take the first crack at it.
And then we’ll keep polishing the language. If we’re working with different stakeholders, we’ll make sure that they’re okay with the language, have their experts look at it, and constantly tweak it until we have a bill draft that we feel very happy with.
And then we’ll introduce it. Literally, we will just file the bill so that it becomes an introduced bill. You mentioned Washington before, literally in Washington, if you want to introduce a bill, there’s an inbox on the floor of the House or the Senate where you just literally drop a bill in.
And that’s how officially how it happens. I mean, obviously, it’s a bit more sophisticated than that these days, but the original thing is you literally just put your bill in the bill dropbox. So we have a similar version. We submit it. And then once the legislative day begins, it’ll be put into the system. And then the bill is live. That we then try to shepherd through the rest of the process.
Rachel: Do you have any stories about something that really changed dramatically when you started digging?
Andrew: We’re working on a bill right now, it’s a bill about helping freelancers get paid and we’re working with a bunch of advocates on this bill. And it turns out that someone else has already kind of taken a very similar approach to the solutions that we’ve solved. They’d already introduced a similar bill but not the same bill. And so we’ve been drafting this and drafting this, and all of a sudden it pops up that someone else is already there. It doesn’t really change much. Now we know to work with someone who’s already working in this space to try to collaborate.
But certainly, none of my bills have had radical transformations at this stage in the process. Sometimes we’ll get feedback from stakeholders, when they see the language, that what we had agreed on isn’t what they want. There might be some back and forth there. But by and large, it’s a very collaborative process.
Rachel: Actually, I have a question about that with bills showing up on the website. I noticed, comparing to DC, they have these very specific titles for each bill. And everything I see on the New York Senate website seems to be, like, relating to such and such a thing, but not really like a title. What’s the deal with that?
Andrew: You know, that’s a good question. I mean, I’ve named some of my bills. Like the SLEEP Act was a name that we actually put into the actual bill text. But I think that’s probably just the way historically the legislature has it’s own internal processes. I couldn’t tell you exactly when or how or why that started. But it doesn’t really have a big effect on the actual substance of the bills. It’s more just about a formality. So I just don’t pay much attention to it.
Andrew: But I’m glad that other people are!
Rachel Yeah, you know, you go and you try to find stuff and it’s like, wait… what’s the bill’s name again?
Assigning a committee
Dan: Now we have an introduced bill. So the process for shepherding that live bill… what does that process look like?
Andrew: Oftentimes when we’re drafting a bill, we will try to identify an Assembly lead as well, so that we’re both introducing the same bill at the same time. Hopefully in advance, though not always. Sometimes we’ll introduce the bill in the Senate first. And then someone might say, “oh, that’s a good bill. I saw you just put it in. Can I carry that in the Assembly?” and usually the answer is, “Sure, of course”, unless there’s like a strategic reason why we want someone in particular.
Once a bill gets introduced, it gets referred to the committee that has the primary jurisdiction for that issue area.
Technically speaking, that assignment happens when the legislature meets for the day and it’s one of the pro-forma motions that happens. We do it by shorthand now. All the bills that are introduced, they’ll already be pre-ordained to their committee assignments. And then, we just have to introduce a motion to have that officially assigned to that committee.
Andrew: So once in a committee then it’s a matter about getting the committee chairman support for that bill. And there’s different levels of engagement and coalition building that I think are necessary.
For some bills you have to work very hard cause they’re big bills. Maybe they’re controversial. Maybe there’s a lot of voices that need to be heard. You have to build a big coalition of support to help build momentum for those bills, even at the committee level. That’s where it usually helps to have outside stakeholders, advocacy groups, and experts help build that coalition for you.
You want to get co-sponsors on your bills too. I might be working on a bill that involves the environment. Can I get the committee chairman of the environmental protection committee to be supportive, or at least not opposed? You want to think strategically about building co-sponsors and building up support.
Other bills aren’t as controversial or as big. So you don’t need the same type of internal engagement on them to kind of move them through. But you do still try to work the levers on both the House and the Senate side to build up internal support.
Once a bill is in committee you then do what is known as a Request Out where we request the bill to be reported out of the committee. And that means that we are requesting that the bill makes it onto the next committee agenda. And by doing that, it’s a flag that this is a priority for you.
And it also is an opportunity for the committee staff to then look at the bill. What’s this bill about? What does it do? Is it a controversial bill? Is it not a controversial bill? Do we think we can pass it? Does it need to be amended? Are there any issues that are flagged by other stakeholders or other people on the other side of the table? And that’s really the opportunity for the committee staff to kind of take their first good, deep dive at the bill.
If the bill survives that level of scrutiny, it’ll often make it onto a committee agenda. And then at the next committee, it’ll be considered and it’ll be hopefully passed. It’ll come up for a vote. Sometimes intervening between the passage of a bill, and introduction and its passage, there’ll be committee hearings. There’ll be legislative hearings. There’ll be round tables. There’ll be educational forums. It really depends on the type of bill that you’re talking about.
Broadly speaking, once you introduced the bill, you try to get onto a committee agenda so that it can then start moving through. If a bill that’s introduced in a committee has issues… maybe some stakeholders have raised red flags or yellow flags… sometimes it’s a political dispute… you have to work through the politics of that. But really the key is to get it through that committee. A bill will not go anywhere until it gets through that committee first.
Talking to legislators and generating buzz
Dan: So how do you make those first contacts? Is it a cold call to a committee member? Is it casual, for example, you see them at a restaurant and say, “Hey, I have a bill.” Do people know what’s happening passively through office scuttlebutt or…?
Andrew: I think it’s all of the above. Once you introduce the bill, it’s public record. It’s in the public domain. Once it gets assigned to the committee, that’s also in the public domain.
Your efficacy in this line of work really is built on the strength of your relationships.
And so having good relationships allows you to then have those types of conversations. Oftentimes on bills that are priorities for me, once we introduce a bill, we will then send a memo or a letter to all of my colleagues with a copy of the bill. With any supporting documentation, memos articles, et cetera, saying, “I’ve just introduced this bill. Would you consider co-sponsoring it?” And oftentimes we’ll get some co-sponsors on that bill.
Other times I will pick up the phone and I’ll call the chairman of a committee saying, “Hey, I just dropped this bill. It’s going to come to your committee, I’d love to talk to you about it.” Sometimes I’ll do that before I introduce the bill to give them a heads up if I think it’ll be contentious in any way.
Sometimes those conversations can happen in the hallway. They can happen in the chamber up in Albany. I was with some of my colleagues last week during a retreat with the Senate Democrats. There’s a bill that I introduced last year and I mentioned it to two of my colleagues. I said, “Hey, I think you’d actually be really interested in this bill. Can we take a look at it?” And because I have a close relationship with both of those individuals, yeah, no problem.
You talk to people wherever you can find them. There are lots of jokes to be had about politicians who always talk, but I think it’s really important to be very communicative. If you want your bills to become law, you have to keep it in the public conversation. And the way to keep it in the public conversation is to talk about it.
Bipartisanship in Albany
Rachel: Yeah. And just talking about other legislators, one of the things I thought was so interesting was in your first term is that we had a majority in the Senate. Now its a super majority. When you’re working on bi-partisan issues, how does the dynamic change?
Andrew: Oh, it’s always good when you can find opportunities to have things be bipartisan… or just nonpartisan. But it’s not the same type of bipartisan considerations that you see in Washington where you kind of are forced to go across the aisle.
For better or for worse, historically the power dynamics of the state legislature and each individual chamber have been partisan driven.
So when Republicans controlled the State Senate, they did not really collaborate much with the Democrats. Now, with the Democrats in the majority, we’ve done a little bit of a better job. But we still don’t have to negotiate with them.
In fact, even the allocation of resources for each individual member is really determined on a partisan basis. I’ve heard some stories from some of my colleagues who previously served in the minority as Democrats, and they would tell me stories about when the Republicans controlled the Senate. Democrats would get the second hand computers. You couldn’t get a whole box of pushpins, you would get a Dixie cup of pushpins. You were limited…
Andrew: One of my colleagues said that there were two different types of notepads. There were the high quality notepads. And then there were the three times recycled paper that was like thinner than tissue paper. That went to the Democratic members. You didn’t get access to photocopiers. You didn’t get access to printers.
Rachel: Oh so there’s a huge amount of control there.
Andrew: Huge amount control, huge amount of control. And when we took the majority in 2019, we kept some of that control, but I think we did a better job of, you know… not being jerks about it.
But to answer your question, there are lots of bills that pass 63 to zero. 62 to one. But a lot of the big ticket bills tend to be split down a partisan line.
The committee vote
Dan: I’ve seen committee meeting recordings where you’ll have someone sit at the…
Andrew: You’re the one guy who watches that video! I was wondering who that one YouTube view was!
Dan: (laughter) It’s amazing how fast committee members can speak. They are rattling off bills. Committee meetings aren’t necessarily for discussion. Someone names the bill. The vote happens in 30 seconds. Because again, most of that collaboration is happening off screen earlier.
Andrew: Exactly. The committee meetings themselves are more of a pro forma. But not always… sometimes people will ask questions and there’ll be discussions. Some committee meetings have lasted a long time.
But yes. By and large, when bills get to this point, you already know where the votes are. You already know who’s voting for it. It’s already kind of cleared the initial hurdles. And so it is more of a pro forma process than it is an actual instance of engagement.
Andrew: So for a lot of bills, once they pass one committee, they can then go either to a floor calendar, or they could be referred to another committee for more review.
Oftentimes bills that have a financial impact or cost will get routed from the primary committee to the finance committee. And so then you have to go through that hurdle again. The same process applies there.
Aging on the floor
Andrew: Once a bill clears its committee hurdles and it gets reported to the floor, it then has to age on the floor for at least three days before a vote can be taken on it.
That requirement sits from the days where you literally had to have a copy of the bill sitting on your desk for three days for public review to give legislators a chance to read it before you pass anything. So it has to age for at least three days. And then it’s eligible for a vote.
Sometimes we will pass a bill through committee, put it on a floor calendar, but not take it up right away because it still needs some work. Maybe it still needs to be amended. Maybe there’s an agreement to move the bill out of committee, but we know that we’re going to revisit the bill language and make a tweak or try to amend it some other way. So it’s not like once it clears committee, it is now on a fast track to full passage. It just clears another hurdle along the way.
The legislative session
Dan: Once it does reach the floor, what does one of those sessions look like from the actual human perspective of someone who has to sit through them and work it?
Andrew: Oh boy. So, um, you guys should actually come up to Albany one day when we’re in session to see how crazy it is. And we’d love to have guys… we’ll host you in the office. When we are in session… and we are in session nearly from January through June, every week, anywhere from two to five days a week.
A session day in Albany is like… what’s the best way to describe it. Imagine tying yourself to a fire hose and putting your mouth over the hole. And then having someone kick a wrench around to loosen the screw cap, and you’re just latching on and you’re trying to stay upright with this onslaught of water coming your way.
It can be really intense because we only have limited days that we’re in session. So you’ll start your day meeting with constituents, meeting with with folks that want a bit of your time. Those meetings can be literally 10 minutes at a time. We’ll have 20 meetings scheduled in a day sometimes with various groups.
Maybe we’ll have a school group coming up. Then we’ll have the Bay Ridge Medical Society will come up and then we’ll have the Brooklyn BAR Association. And then we’ll have this group, or that group. And you want to give everyone a little bit of your time. So you’ll have your staff meet with them. You’ll meet with them. You’ll pop into this meeting, pop into that meeting.
I sit on seven committees, too, so I’ll have anywhere from three to five committee meetings in a day. Sometimes it’s my own committee that I’m chairing. Sometimes other committees. You’re basically running around the Capitol to all these different committee meetings. Popping back to your office. Saying hi to the school group. Popping back across to the Capitol to do the judiciary committee meeting. Maybe at the judiciary committee you’re interviewing candidates for the court of appeals, so you want to be prepared and thoughtful and you want to ask good questions. Then you got to run from that vote back to your office because this is happening. That’s happening. That’s the entire morning till about one o’clock.
At One o’clock we have an internal daily conference. The Senate Democratic conference will meet. The Republican Conference will meet. And that’s where we do our own internal conversations. What’s going on for the day? What’s going on for the week? What do we expect happening on the floor? Are we anticipating any objections on bills? Are we anticipating any parliamentary procedures or tricks or whatever? Those conversations can also go from one to three hours. Maybe that’s a time for the entire conference to discuss an issue that’s coming down the pike in a couple of weeks and we want to see if we have any consensus on it. Maybe it’s a conversation about an update on the budget negotiations, or an update on where things stand with the negotiations on the climate bill, or this bill, or the that bill.
Then we go onto the Senate floor. That’s when we actually have the formal legislative session where we all sit in the chamber. We run through the day’s agenda. Every bill gets called up for a vote. You have to vote on each bill. If you want to speak on a bill, you have to rise. That can go for a couple hours as well.
And then at night, then you’ve got to catch up on everything you missed during the day, because you haven’t had a chance to look at your phone and your emails all day. There’s evening events. The school group that came up during the day is now going back home and so they want to take a picture with you by the bus. The medical society is having a reception to thank the Brooklyn delegation for their support on a bill. So you want to stop by there and make sure that you say thank you. There’s a lot of running around constantly.
And it is literally the same way every single day we’re in session. Drinking out of a fire hose. That’s the best and most accurate way to describe it.
Dan: Do you even have time to eat or…?
Andrew: I myself try to eat like a strong breakfast and just like snack through the day and hopefully get through to about 6:30 or 7pm when I’ll have a big dinner.
It’s a lot. Lots of running around. It’s hard to stay on top of all your work that way. My staff is great and they do a lot of the work for me and I’m able to trust them and delegate to them alot.
But I still want to know where we are and I want to review legislative language. At night, I need to do my briefings for the next day. I need to know what’s on the committee agenda. What am I preparing for? Do I have any issues, concerns, questions? I have to put in that prep time as well. That can go anywhere from one to two or three hours, depending on how busy the next day is. So it is two full-time days packed into one, basically.
Rachel: The most understanding of that, that I’ve ever had, has been watching some of your colleagues posting during budgeting. They’ll say things like, “Oh, we’re in hour 25 in the chambers.”
Hearing you talk about it and knowing that that’s on top of the commute to Albany and back. On top of having it be multiple days in the week… that is just crazy.
Andrew: Yeah. But I love it. It’s actually really exciting. And it’s fun because this is what you signed up for. And this is how it gets done. This is how the sausage gets made. And I love it.
Dealing with controversy
Rachel: What’s the most challenging bill that you’ve had go to a vote and pass?
Andrew: Hmmm, my most challenging bill?
That’s a good question. You know what? I have not had as many controversial bills that some of my colleagues. I would say the one that generated the greatest amount of debate would have been the speed camera bill. it took 20 minutes of debate. And the debate was not on my bill, it was on the subsequent bill which allowed the City of Buffalo to basically operate its own speed camera program.
For whatever reason… and actually, the Republican Senators who were asking about the Buffalo Bill… (laughter) Buffalo Bills!
Rachel: You do know I’m from Buffalo, right? (laughter)
Andrew: Their questions were like, “I should have asked these questions under the last bill about New York City, but it’s the same topic, so I still want to get them on the record.”
Andrew: So that bill generated the most amount of debate. I believe we’ve done a lot of to eliminate or reduce obstacles and opposition. A lot of the bills that I’ve passed have been related to my committee chairmanship on Pensions and Civil Service, and everyone wants to say that they support their public workers.
So by the time we get bills to the floor for a vote we don’t have as much opposition. Which is great. And it’s great to be able to have a kind of a portfolio of issues that don’t engender that type of opposition.
So we’ll pass the bill. It might pass unanimously, which a lot of my bills have. They might pass 43 to 20, if it’s strictly down party lines.
The Assembly version
Andrew: Oftentimes by the time you have it on the floor for passage, I would say 9 times out of 10, the Assembly Bill will be the exact same language. They might go through some amendments to sync up the houses beforehand, but when the bill passes, 9 times out of 10, will be the same bill in each house.
And actually what happens once a bill passes one house, it then gets transmitted to the other house. And it gets swapped out for the exact bill in the other house. So S1234 and A5678 might be the same exact bill. One in each chamber. If it passes the Senate first, the Senate bill will then get carried over to the Assembly bill. And then the Assembly clerk will read A5678 is being subbed out for S1234. And then that becomes the bill that the Assembly will vote on. It’s the same bill. It really just comes to: who does it first?
The Governors desk
Andrew: Once it passes… and the same thing happens in D.C. also, by the way… once it passes it technically then goes to the Governor’s office for signature. Under the State Constitution, a bill gets transmitted to the Governor’s office and the Governor has 10 days to either sign the bill or veto it.
If the governor does not veto it or sign it, it can then become law automatically.
As a matter of practice… I don’t know how far back this practice stems, but certainly under the previous governor… the previous Governor would request that the legislature not send the bill until he was ready to receive the bill.
So there’s no requirement that the bill gets transmitted immediately after passage to the Governor’s office. There is an ambiguous gray area where it can just be in a holding pattern. And then the Governor can call for the bill. And at that point, the clock starts.
Rachel: So essentially, the previous governor was saying, “I don’t have time to look at it until I have time to look at it.”
Andrew: Or “I don’t want to look at it until I want to look at it.” Either or, right?
Maybe it’s a bill that the governor hasn’t had a chance to engage with the legislature on in depth for either intentional or unintentional reasons. Maybe they were not paying attention and want more time to see where bill opponents are, or what our position is, or where other stakeholders are. Maybe they want to see if there might be a way to like negotiate a compromise after the fact. That’s what I’ll talk to you about in a minute.
Or maybe, the other governor was really getting big about this… take the speed camera bill for example. We passed it in March…
Andrew: The previous governor wanted to sign it at a time that he thought it would have the biggest splash. So he picked Mother’s Day in May. He waited until a few days before Mother’s Day to call for the bill because he wanted a press hit saying that he was signing the speed camera bill on Mother’s Day, which is a really, really interesting… it’s an effective, smart way to think about how the Executive can insert itself into the legislative process by controlling the ultimate clock.
And the previous governor was really, really good about that. He did that all the time.
The one time, it was actually one of the first bills we passed when we came into the majority, we passed the Reproductive Health Act and we sent the bill to him right away. And he was upset. Like, “No, you can’t send me the bill. I’m not ready for it!” Because he wants to do this whole thing. He wanted to have pink drapes and have a whole big event. We kind of forced his hand. And he had to just sign it. It wasn’t to his liking. So…
Rachel: That’s actually what I was going to ask about. If, if the legislature could just say like, nope, we’re sending it.
Andrew: They can. They very well can. I think as a matter of comity… comity not comedy… we try to engage in good faith unless it’s urgent. It’s okay to let the clock play out a little bit. And by the way, maybe the legislature wants to let a little bit more time play out so that they can help devise a press strategy or this or that, or get a bigger hit at it. So it really depends.
The Governor makes changes
Andrew: Oftentimes the Governor would look at a bill, or have his staff look at a bill, and then try to negotiate some changes. A process called the chapter amendment process. So what that means is the Governor will look at a bill and say, “Actually, I don’t like these three provisions in this bill. I want to change them in these three ways.”
He could veto the bill, and then have us go back to the drawing board and then try to maybe pass a bill with those changes… if we can negotiate a compromise. Or, what’s I think a more efficient way of getting it done, which is what we do, is he’ll say, “I’ll sign the bill with a memo of understanding that the legislature will, at their next available time, pass another bill that makes these three modifications.” It’s called a chapter amendment.
And don’t forget, right now, Governor Hochul is sitting on nearly 350 bills that have passed both chambers of the legislature that still needed her review. So it’s drawn out by the practical effect of the calendar. You can’t give her a thousand bills and say, “You have 10 days for all of them. Good luck.” Right? So let’s say that we’re out of session and the Governor gets around to looking at one of my bills in October and wants to make a change. Maybe the effective date in my bill was 60 days after enactment, but the Governor says we need a year based on what the agency is telling them. Fine. We’ll negotiate that agreement. The governor will sign my bill. And then when we come back into session in January, we’ll pass a new bill called the chapter amendment that we have previously negotiated, and we’ll amend the law to change the effective date. That happens more often than not on many, many bills.
Bridging local and state-wide issues
Dan: How difficult is it to put up a bill that deals specifically with an issue that’s important in Bay Ridge and getting someone in Buffalo, or one of your other colleagues, to kind of care about something that seems specific to Bay Ridge? For example, the SLEEP Act, which is just coming out, is for cars backfiring and modifications to mufflers. How do you get other groups of people to care about that issue on a state level?
Andrew: The SLEEP Act is a great example. That was a bill that actually had wide support all across the state. I mean, when we introduced the bill, I got messages and phone calls and Tweets and Facebook messages and letters from people all over the state. I had a news station in Binghamton interview me about it because it was a problem in Binghamton.
Rachel: Wow, it’s not just Shore Road.
Andrew: This one I think had universal… and obviously New York being in the universe… universal appeal.
And in fact, my co-sponsor in the Assembly was the chairman of the Transportation Committee who is from Syracuse. So the Assemblyman from Syracuse picked up this bill and helped me pass it, not knowing about the Shore Road problem, but knowing about the Syracuse problem and realizing that we both have the same problem, which is also the same problem out in Long Island and in Buffalo and in Rochester and in North Country and Hudson Valley… everywhere. So oftentimes you’ll find that bills will have a greater impact than you might first suspect.
Home Rule (and getting around it)
Andrew: Other bills that might have a more localized impact… it really depends on where those impacts are being felt. So, for example, if it’s a bill that just affects New York City, not to go down a constitutional history segway here, uh…
Dan: Oh please do.
Andrew: The New York constitution is unique. There is a rich history behind this that we won’t go into, but the concept is really fascinating: Home Rule.
Because Albany controls so much of the day-to-day ability of local governments to operate, Albany cannot take actions that affect a singular jurisdiction unless there is a Home Rule request from the local governing jurisdiction asking for that change.
So for example, the speed camera legislation that I passed and signed into law in 2019 only applies to New York City. We could not pass that bill out of the legislature until we received a Home Rule message from the City Council saying “We, the City Council have received S1234. We have read it. We agree with it. And we respectfully request the State Legislature to pass this bill. And we approve of this bill.”
Rachel: That must be an area where having partners in City Government becomes so important.
Andrew: Huge, huge. But there are ways around the Home Rule message.
For example, if you write the bill to say, “In relation to the operation of a speed camera demonstration program in the City of New York,” that’ll trigger a home rule message from the City of New York, because you say the City of New York.
If you say in the bill, “In relation to the operation of a speed camera demonstration program in any city of one million people or more,” technically, that could be any city in the state that meets that definitional requirement. But practically speaking, there’s only one city that does that, which is the City of New York, right?
So there are ways around the Home Rule request. But again, as part of the consensus building process, there will be plenty of opportunities to engage with stakeholders, both internally in the legislature, externally with the executive, as well as externally with other levels of government, to make sure that everyone’s kind of pulling the oars in the same direction, even if not at the same pace.
Andrew’s State Constitution reading list
Dan: I would love to do a bonus episode at some point on the constitutional history of Home Rule.
Andrew: I’ve got a bunch of books on my shelf here, all about New York’s constitutional history. So I would, I would urge you to start with Ordered Liberty, which is a history of the New York State Constitution. And then I would move on to New York’s Broken Constitution, which highlights seven areas where the State Constitution is fundamentally broken and flawed and laying out a case for reform. Those would be the two recommendations that I would make to your loyal listeners.
Exploring specific bills: Estates, Powers and Trusts
Rachel: And actually that kind of reminds me of something. One of the bills I saw that you had passed related to declaring that someone was the heir or the legal child of someone else and, sorry, this is kind of a tangent, but how does something like that happen? For something to be that specific?
Andrew: That’s actually a great bill and one that I am personally incredibly proud of.
For your listeners, you remember December 20th, 2014. Detective Weinjian Liu was shot and killed in his patrol car in Bed Stuy. Him and Officer Ramos. And he was a constituent. He had been on the job for a couple of years. He had just been married for three months. His family lives in this district. He lived in this district. They were killed by a gentleman who came up from Baltimore because he wanted to kill cops.
And on his deathbed, the doctors asked his wife and said, like, “Do you want us to extract his semen for in vitro fertilization?” And she’s processing the fact that her husband is bleeding out and dying and they were just newlywed. Three months. They had talked about having a family. Hadn’t had any children yet. She said yes. So she was able to save the material.
And then about two and a half years later, through the wonder of science, she was able to give birth to a little girl. The little girl is now seven years old. She just turned seven this past summer. But under the Federal law, to access her father’s Social Security survivor benefits, which she would naturally be the beneficiary of… if your biological parents die, you are entitled to their survivor benefits. The Social Security Administration says that in cases where the biological parent has pre-deceased they look at state law to determine whether or not the child is actually deemed to be the child of that individual.
Under New York’s law… and this is going into detail, but it’s really interesting… under New York law the only way that a child could be considered the heir to someone born through in-vitro is if either both parents are alive and gave consent, or, in the case that there was the one parent who passed away, there had to have been written consent previously provided in writing with the signature of two witnesses and the child would have to have been born within 36 months of the extraction of the semen.
Clearly in a case like this, where the officer is on his death bed in a hospital, not knowing what the law is, there is no way to secure that type of preapproval in writing in front of two witnesses, right?
So they have the baby. They’re trying to apply for survivor benefits. No luck. Gets blocked. The family hires an attorney who kind of helps them navigate this, who specializes in this.
And we realized that the state law is really the only way that this girl can access her father’s death benefits. So I proposed legislation to say that in any circumstance like this, where one of the parents is deceased, we would create a presumption that as long as they were married at the time, and as there was some indicia of desire to start a family, and that the birth is within 36 months, we’re going to create a rebuttable presumption that the child is in fact the rightful heir. That presumption could be overcome with evidence. Maybe the family says, “No, I have video recordings of the husband saying that he hated his wife and didn’t want to like, have kids.” There are ways of overcoming it. But anyway…
Dan: Yeah. You have to work out all the other variations on this condition.
Andrew: Right. I think that is actually the right policy outcome.
I think getting my colleagues to understand that policy change in an environment where we’re lashed to the hydrant, drinking out of a firehouse… was a little bit complicated. So we were not able to pass that bill as is, which would have applied to anyone in those circumstances. So instead I rewrote the law to have it specifically apply in this case, just to this girl.
Because end of the day, while the policy change is important, what’s urgent is that this girl gets access to those benefits because there was a clock ticking. A judge had delayed ruling on the appeal application for about a year and a half because the lawyer kept saying, “No, the legislature is going to change the law, the legislature is going to change the law. Don’t deny the application.” Because once you deny it, that’s it, on the appeal. “Please don’t deny it.” So, like, we were running up against a judicial timeline here. We had to change this law. If not for everyone, then for this little girl.
We were finally able to do that last year. And I was so happy about that because this is going to make a world of difference for this family and for this girl and to honor her father’s memory. Again, who, by the way, was a constituent of mine.
Andrew: That was a long story…
Exploring specific bills: Hate Crimes
Rachel: No, that’s an amazing story. I think earlier, was it last year or earlier this year, there was obviously that really upsetting wave of hate crime against both the Asian community, against the Jewish community. And you took some action on that and I’d like to hear a little bit more about, kind of how that came about and how you ended up being the person to lead that.
Andrew: Obviously anyone that pays attention to local news knows that two years ago, the State really made significant changes to the bail laws, right? Because the idea of wealth-based detention, frankly, is immoral. But as a consequence of that, there has been a lot of anxiety, concern… misinformation frankly. People are recognizing and struggling to understand this new reality where you should not hold people in Rikers for non-violent offenses just based on their ability or inability to pay bail… especially people who are non-violent or have not committed violent offenses.
When we made the first changes, one area that I thought really didn’t get due consideration was the commission of hate crimes. A hate crime has a specific victim and a specific perpetrator, but really the victims are broader than just the one person who’s affected. If someone goes up and attacks a Jewish person on the street and then says hateful things during that commission of that crime, that’s not just targeted at that individual person. That’s truly targeting the entire community.
And what we had heard from many folks, especially, as you point out Rachel, when we saw this wave of Asian hate crimes and antisemitic hate crimes, we heard a really big fear from the broader community. That they were afraid to walk to school. They were afraid to walk to the store. They were afraid to walk to their synagogues. They were afraid that because other people in their community were being targeted because of who they were… their religion or their ethnicity… that they too would now be a target. And that certainly is not something we want people to feel. We want people to feel safe in their neighborhoods, especially based on their immutable characteristics.
So I had proposed legislation to say that in the case where someone commits a hate crime, which we know as a hate crime, a judge should have the discretion to decide to hold someone pretrial because of the impact that that person’s release would then have back on the community as a whole.
And really what this was born out of is there was the case of, in Midwood, where one woman over the course of three or four days, attacked three different groups of Jewish people. And was arrested, then released. Went back out and attacked someone else. Arrested and then released. That sends a really concerning message to people that they are not safe.
And so while by and large, I understand that, you know, the significant need to not hold people in jail based solely on their financial ability to pay bail… I thought that there were some cases where a judge needed to say, look, this person has committed multiple attacks against people. Targeting them. And this is now affecting the broader public safety and the anxieties of that community. There should be some limited discretion for Judges in those cases. So I proposed that bill with Assemblymember Simcha Eichenstein from Borough Park. And we made some changes last year in the state budget around bail, some tweaks and modifications in 2020 that included some of the hate crime changes that I had initially authored. So I was happy to see that those changes were being considered. And I think it helps. It gives judges one small tool to use so that we’re not sending a message to the broader community that you need to live in fear when you walk down the street.
Rachel: Thank you so much for taking this time and walking us through what’s quite an arduous process with almost 50 bills passed. You make it look easy.
Andrew: Happily. As I hope you can tell, I really love this. I love this work. I love being able to do this. I take great pride in what I’ve been able write my own bills, but also, to your earlier point, Dan, co-sponsoring other people’s efforts and helping them their bills across the finish line.
I think we’ve done a great amount of work. And from my perspective, I’m just getting started.
Dan: Awesome. Thank you so much, Andrew.
Andrew: Thank you, guys. Thank you.
Rachel: Hopefully we won’t let another three years go by before talking to you again!
Andrew: No, you guys should come to Albany!
Rachel: We will!
Dan: I’d love to do Radio Free Bay Ridge in Albany. Let’s put that on our calendar.
Andrew: It’s gotta be on a Tuesday, which is the busiest day. And you’ll get a good flavor for what’s going on.
Dan: Oh, we would love to be your shadow for a day. Report on how stressful that can really be.
Until next time everyone, follow us on Twitter at @RadioFreeBR, on Facebook. We are now doing Twitter spaces occasionally. So Andrew, feel free to jump in any time. If you want to just chat about one of the bills, keep an eye out on Twitter and follow us there if you haven’t already. On the web at RadioFreeBayRidge.org.
But until next time everyone… stay free, Bay Ridge.
This episode was recorded on December 14, 2021 with Daniel Hetteix, Rachel Brody and Andrew Gounardes at Senator Gounardes’s office located in beautiful Bay Ridge, Brooklyn. All post-production and editing was done by our producer, Daniel Hetteix. The art for this episode was drawn by Daniel Hetteix in the style of Schoolhouse Rock under Fair Use for nonprofit educational purposes.