Lawmakers wrapped up the 2022 legislative session last week. In some ways, the session was like pre-pandemic versions. In January, the Capitol and the Legislative Office building were opened up to the public. Hearings were held. Lobbyists scurried about pleading their cases. But the pandemic’s ongoing plague cut back public access: legislative committees met online, not in person and lawmakers often participated in floor debates from their offices – freed from having to vote in person.
Despite all of the COVID impacts, some new trends emerged. The 2022 session saw a total of 1,007 bills pass both houses, more than the nearly 900 last year and the 935 bills that passed in 2019 – although the pandemic session of 2020 saw less legislative activities due to the shutdown.
And like sessions of the pre-pandemic past, a huge number of bills that were approved by the Legislature came during the final weeks: 651 of the 1,007 bills came in the last two weeks.
The return to some version of “typical” also meant that some big issues were tackled – often in near secrecy. During the budget approval in early April, the governor pushed through a billion dollar subsidy for the Buffalo Bills football team, as well as measures to change the state’s public safety laws. In the last weeks of the session, the governor and Legislature cobbled together big deals on abortion rights and gun control – largely in secret. Both measures responding to recent events, but neither subject to public scrutiny. And a $10 billion subsidy for chip fab manufacturers emerged and passed in the wee hours before the state Senate wrapped up its work.
Not everything was done behind closed doors. There were very public, months-long fights that resulted in legislative action. In the area of the environment, the Legislature approved a bill to place a two-year moratorium on a type of energy-intensive “cryptomining.”
Cryptomining is a relatively new technology that provides the basis for private digital currency, like Bitcoin. Cryptocurrencies are not based on physical notes or coins and do not belong to a central bank, meaning they have no government backing. Their ability to be electronically transmitted without government oversight makes them a popular choice for cybercriminals.
These digital currencies require “authentication” through the solving of complex mathematical equations. The first “cryptominers” to solve an equation authenticates the transaction and wins currency for their effort.
The climate change component of this is that to solve these mathematical equations and to win the currency for their effort, these “miners” need incredible amounts of electricity to run their warehouses full of computers.
Cheap electric results in more profit and cryptominers in New York are converting old fossil fuel energy plants to power their activities. The problem is that firing up these old plants contributes significantly to the amount of greenhouse gas emissions – at precisely the time that the world’s climate experts are arguing that we need to cut back. The legislation puts a hold on permitting the use of these mothballed plants until the state understands the climate (and freshwater) impacts of these operations.
Unfortunately, other important environmental measures – like requiring that new building construction rely on electricity, not oil or gas for power – were stalled in both houses.
Legislation was also approved to allow do-it-yourselfers and independent repair shops to fix common digital devices. Manufacturers of products like cell phones, computers, tablets, video and digital audio systems refuse to share diagnostic information, replacement parts or tools. That means consumers have limited repair choices and spend more time and pay more money to repair fixable items and generate an enormous amount of electronic waste as items are discarded instead of being fixed cheaply and locally. Legislation spearheaded by state Assemblymember Pat Fahy and state Senator Neil Breslin addressed that problem by requiring that manufacturers make information and parts publicly available. This “Right to Repair” legislation, if approved by the governor, will provide a first-in-the-nation protection for consumers.
Overall, the number of bills passed in 2022 documents that one-party control has reversed an overall historical trend: Since seizing control of the Senate, the Democratic majorities in both legislative houses have increased approval of matching bills, reversing the previous decade’s overall decline and reaching the highest amounts seen over the past two decades (other than the 2020 pandemic session).
Yet quantity is not necessarily quality. The climate crisis caused by the burning of oil, gas, and coal is an existential one and deserves urgent legislative attention. Lawmakers did end the session with a significant amount of approved legislation, but unless they are willing to tackle the significant steps needed to respond to climate threats, their work is not done.