New York is still in the middle of fighting COVID-19. And while cases are not where they were last spring, many lawmakers are bracing for tough budget negotiations, potentially from their couch at home.

State lawmakers will have to face housing issues, unemployment, economic instability, COVID-19 cases on the rise, vaccine distribution, and of course, the budget deficit.

And for incoming freshmen, navigating a new year virtually will be challenging.

Democratic Senator Jeremy Cooney, who is the first upstate lawmaker of Asian descent, was sworn in on Monday in a mostly empty chamber. 

“Well, we’re building the airplane as we’re flying it,” Senator Cooney said. “On Wednesday, on session day, we’re going to be looking into our Zoom screens. Not what we had imagined in our heads when we were part of the campaign process.”

Incoming freshman Democratic Senator Michelle Hinchey said the state is going to need to focus on multiple revenue raisers to close the gaping $15 billion budget deficit.

She is pushing for legalizing recreational marijuana and increased taxes on the ultra-wealthy, two ideas that have growing support among Democratic lawmakers.

“We should not be cutting services and have people struggle in this moment,” Senator Hinchey said. “Middle class, people who are working through this pandemic, our teachers, our first responders, our students who did nothing to cause this problem, should not bear the brunt of how we move forward through it.”

On the other hand, incoming Republican Assemblyman Michael Lawler said the state needs to focus on spending and cutting down costs where possible.

“We need to prioritize spending and really reign in some of the excesses over the past decade under this governor and this legislature,” Assemblyman Lawler explained. “We need to look how we prioritize our state budget.”

While the state’s economic recovery will be one main center point of this legislative year, lawmakers say vaccine distribution will be another priority. 

Now that more upstate lawmakers hold power in the state legislature, Senator Hinchey said this could help play a role in making sure there is vaccine equity across regions.

“How do we make sure that people in our rural communities are getting the access to the vaccine that they need?” Hinchey said. “That our seniors who live alone in rural communities, whether it’s the mountaintop or the hill towns or the middle of the Mohawk Valley, how are they getting it in a timely manner the same way those of us in cities do?”

Legislative session for the 2021 calendar year officially starts on Wednesday, January 6.