Eliminating Paper Copies of Bills In New York Assembly Would Be Unconstitutional

August 11th, 2013

Apparently, New York’s constitution requires that all bills that are voted upon must be “printed.” As in, on paper. And efforts to go all digital require a constitutional amendment. Go figure!

In June, after years of inaction even as other states moved to reduce legislative paper consumption, New York lawmakers gave their final approval to a measure that would allow the Legislature to publish bills electronically, rather than on paper.

However, nothing in Albany is ever simple. An obscure provision in the State Constitution requires that bills “shall have been printed and upon the desks of the members” for three days before a vote can be taken. So delivering bills to lawmakers on tablets or laptop computers, as it turns out, requires a constitutional amendment, which the Legislature will put before voters on the statewide ballot next year.

The proposed constitutional amendment would maintain the three-day waiting period between publication of a bill and a vote, intended to allow lawmakers and the public time to consider the legislation, but eliminate the need for the bills to be physically printed on paper. The Legislature has had to approve the measure twice — a requirement for a constitutional amendment — and after this year’s agreement to put the measure before voters, Mr. Tedisco said, “Mother Earth is smiling today.

The President is required to actually sign it with a pen. I don’t think a digital signature works. Alas, OLC has approved signing with an Autopen, even when the president is out of the country.

And, of course because this is New York, the paper industry opposed it!

The proposal in Albany may be especially hard to explain to the paper lobby, which, although not a powerhouse there, does exist. The pulp and paper industry is responsible for more than 16,000 jobs in New York, according to the American Forest and Paper Association.

Eric Carlson, the president of the Empire State Forest Products Association, said his organization had no problem with giving the Legislature the flexibility to avoid needless printing in order to save taxpayer dollars. But at the same time, he said, he worried about any efforts to demonize the use of paper, in the Legislature or elsewhere.

“We would be very concerned about sending the message out that somehow it’s wrong to use paper,” Mr. Carlson said.

International Paper, which has lucrative contracts to supply the sprawling state government with truckloads of copy paper (although not the paper used for printing bills), lobbied against eliminating the paper bill requirement, arguing that its Ticonderoga pulp and paper mill is an essential part of the North Country economy. On the other side, a firm hired by Apple, which stands to benefit if MacBooks or iPads replace paper in the legislative chambers, reported lobbying on the measure, although it was not clear how much.

I don’t think there is any analogous provision in the U.S. Constitution. The closest I can think of is the “presentment” clause which requires that the passed bill has to be presented to the President for his signature.

Every Bill which shall have passed the House of Representatives and the Senate, shall, before it become a Law, be presented to the President of the United States: If he approve he shall sign it, but if not he shall return it, with his Objections to that House in which it shall have originated, who shall enter the Objections at large on their Journal, and proceed to reconsider it.