Why didn't the state budget debate go all night? This is the reason.

·4 min read
Hans Pennink/AP

ALBANY, N.Y. — A group of state senators gathering in their seats to start debate on the budget’s “big ugly” omnibus bill on Tuesday were stunned to learn what was happening just down the hallway: Not only had the Assembly already started to debate that bill, but it was nearing the end of its vote.

The Assembly wound up passing the bill a full 90 minutes before the Senate. And while the Senate wrapped up its approval of the 10-part budget first a little before 11 p.m., it only beat the Assembly by about 10 minutes.

That’s a departure from the way things usually work in Albany, where the 150 members in the Assembly often keep debating major bills until 6 a.m. or so on nights when the 63-person Senate wraps up before midnight. And it just might be the new norm, thanks to recent rules changes that limit how much members of the Assembly are allowed to speak about the bills.

“There’s just so much in a bill like that. There’s so much to cover,” said Assemblyman Ed Ra (R-Nassau), the top GOP member on the budget, said of the omnibus bill that dealt with subjects as varied as bail, marijuana and green energy. “And 15 minutes goes by very quickly.”

That 15 minutes refers to the new time limit for speaking on a bill. Last year, the Democrats who dominate the chamber made permanent a temporary pandemic-related measure that put in the new time limit.

Each member had previously been allowed two of these 15 minute windows to speak. They’re now capped at one. And total debate on a bill is capped at four hours.

This was aimed at reducing the time members would spend in the chamber to leave them with more time to get “the information [on the bills] out to our constituents,” Majority Leader Crystal Peoples-Stokes (D-Buffalo) said at the time the rules were approved.

The changes came into play as members were speaking on the omnibus bill late Tuesday.

“We are approaching the four-hour limit for consideration of the bill,” Acting Speaker Jeff Aubry (D-Queens) warned the chamber after 22 of the 150 members were given a chance to debate. Even those 22 members didn’t get a chance to speak about everything they would’ve liked.

“Some of the bills can be very detailed,” Assemblyman Andy Goodell (R-Jamestown), the GOP floor leader, said later. “We had one bill that was over 1,200 pages long. There was no way I could ask every question I had in 15 minutes, it was physically impossible.”

But whatever the merits, the changes helped the Assembly move along at a relatively expeditious clip.

It’s rare for that chamber to finish its work nearly as quickly as the Senate, and the handful of occasions when it’s actually finished passing the budget first have mostly been due to broader logistical issues.

That happened in 2017, when members were in their districts when the final deals were struck; the Assembly decided to return to pass bills on a Saturday while the Senate came back on a Sunday. The Assembly beat the upper chamber by a few days in 2009, which was not exactly a banner year for the Senate’s operations as it dealt with a leadership coup.

The changes could help lead to a reduction in Albany’s infamous “vampire sessions,” when members act on major bills between the midnight hour and sunrise. The overnight sessions have long been criticized by some lawmakers and good-government groups for having important measures being approved with little public scrutiny — or, for that matter, the public even being awake.

The overnight debates have already become a little less common, thanks to the approval of a 2014 constitutional amendment that lets members read bills on tablets rather than requiring that everything be physically placed on their desks. It has meant a quicker turnaround for bills to hit lawmakers' desks, at least electronically.

“Oftentimes, we were literally just waiting on the printer to print things out,” said former Hudson Valley Sen. Terry Gipson, who campaigned against the overnight sessions during his time in the chamber a decade ago and coined the "vampire bllls" phrase.

But these types of sessions haven’t completely gone away. With 150 members, big debates in the Assembly can drag on all night. On the occasional major debates, lawmakers said it can be frustrating to be limited in their questioning, especially on such complex issues as a state budget.

“We knew as they were making the change, it’s not something that comes into play all that often,” Ra said.

“But when it does, it really is frustrating and limiting. It’s that rare big ugly in a budget or end-of-session, or some major policy bill … I had a couple of colleagues say to me – ‘jeez, there’s so much in it, how do I get to all the things I want to talk about?’”