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Little consensus on redistricting

Dick Dadey, the founder of Citizens Union left, explains a pie chart showing the support among lawmakers for redistricting reform in New York. Photo by Veronica Lewin.
March 21, 2011
There are legislative redistricting proposals emanating from both parties in both houses, and from the executive branch, with little consensus on how reform should be accomplished.

Weeks before the Legislature is slated to receive New York's 2010 census data, which will be used to determine reapportionment, it remains unclear who will draw new Senate, Assembly and congressional districts and what criteria will be used. There are multiple bills and a pledge by Gov. Andrew Cuomo to veto any redistricting plan that he sees as politically motivated. The existing proposals would all form an independent redistricting commission to draw district lines for the Legislature to consider, eventually.

There are two bills proposing a statute to accomplish reform: Cuomo's program bill (A.5388/S.3419) and a similar bill (A.3432/S.2543) introduced earlier in the session by Sen. Michael Gianaris, D-Queens, and Assemblyman Hakeem Jeffries, D-Brooklyn.

A third bill will be introduced by the Assembly GOP, and Minority Leader Brian Kolb, R-Canandaigua, said this legislation would be a modified version of the governor's proposal that addresses his concerns with the bill.

A fourth proposal, a bill (S.3331/A.5271) introduced by Sen. John Bonacic, R-Mount Hope, proposes amending the state Constitution to provide an independent redistricting process. The legislation was passed in the Senate March 14 and was referred by the Assembly to the Attorney General for his opinion. It is the only redistricting reform bill passed thus far in either house.

"I am concerned [Cuomo's bill] is unconstitutional. I prefer we seize the momentum on redistricting and pass my proposed constitutional amendment if we are to also pass the governor's bill. If the governor's bill passes and is declared unconstitutional, 10 years from now we will be in the same place — just as we were 10 years ago," said Bonacic.

A constitutional amendment, if approved this session, would need to be passed again by the next Legislature and voted on in a public referendum. The process would mean the new commission would not be formed for the first time until the next decennial redistricting process, which has led to opposition by Senate Democrats and good government groups.

At a Senate Judiciary Committee hearing on March 14, Democratic senators voiced their concerns about the Bonacic bill.

"We must do the bill first, the time is upon us, and to really kick the can down the block for another decade just won't do it," said Sen. Adriano Espaillat, D-Manhattan.

Bonacic, in response said, "it's not kicking the can down the road, it's asking for true reform on the issue of redistricting once and for all for decades to come by future legislatures that in no way dilutes or prevents or delays present redistricting, and I don't see how this bill in any way prevents us from moving forward with redistricting next year."

Bonicic's bill received unanimous support from Senate Republicans, and the four members of the independent Democratic conference.

Sen. David Valesky, D-Oneida, who is a member of the Senate's independent Democrats, and who introduced a bill proposing a law that would create an independent process immediately, said he still supports the passage of a statute and that he does not believe his bill to be unconstitutional.

"There are those who are concerned that the way the state Constitution is currently drafted, to do [redistricting reform] through legislation alone and without amending the Constitution may in fact be unconstitutional, I don't share that opinion. I supported a constitutional amendment to make it very clear that if there is ambiguity in the Constitution let's fix it," said Valesky, "the bills are not mutually exclusive."

The constitutionality of passing a bill, to enact a statute, to create an independent commission to draw district lines has been questioned by Senate Majority Leader Dean Skelos, R-Rockville Centre, and other Senate Republicans.

"The state Constitution gives the Legislature sole authority to redraw congressional and legislative lines so I think the only constitutional way to make that change is by passing an amendment to the Constitution. That's why we chose to do that," said Senate GOP spokesman Mark Hansen.

When asked if Skelos and the Republican majority would act this session to change how the 2012 redistricting process will be carried out, Hansen said "I could not speculate to that right now, the budget is going to dominate for the next few weeks."

Time is of the essence when it comes to 2012, according to New York Public Interest Research Group Legislative Director Blair Horner. The good government group is part of a newly formed Reshape New York coalition that aims to get reform passed for the next round of redistricting.

"In order to have an independent commission get created and be able to get its work done by the beginning of next year the bill has to pass like yesterday," said Horner. "Given that the Senate Republicans position so far has been not to engage on the issue of the statute that is what we are concerned about."

According to Reshape New York, 181 lawmakers supported 2012 redistricting reform either by co-sponsoring Gianaris' bill, Valesky's bill, signing the NY Uprising pledge, or saying they would support it in a Citizens Union questionnaire.

"We are going to do everything we can, both face-to-face lobbying and in their districts to get them, those 181, to fulfill their promise," said Horner.

Beyond the constitutional debate, technical previsions of the bills vary: Bonacic's bill would allow for a 5 percent population deviation in Senate and Assembly districts, which is far higher then the 1 percent proposed in Cuomo's and the Gianaris/Jeffries bill.

Based on census date, the ideal number of people who should be living within a legislative district is determined. The population deviation establishes how far above or below that ideal number a district's population can be.

Bonacic when asked why his bill proposed a 5 percent deviation, said "the reality is, a 1 percent deviation in Assembly districts has the effect of splitting even very small upstate towns into two Assembly districts, thereby diminishing their effective 'clout.'"

When asked if Bonacic would be willing to compromise on the deviation, he said "Sure, but the reality is my concerns ... still should be taken into consideration. It is not good public policy to have small towns split up by Assembly representation."

The argument for lowering the population deviation is to prevent intentional over or under population of districts for political gains.

Another technical difference between these bills is how the independent commission will be selected.

Cuomo's bill would require a nominations committee be appointed, with four members picked by the governor and one by each of the four legislative conference leaders. The committee would nominate 40 candidates for the 11-member independent redistricting commission. The legislative leaders would then choose eight members from that pool, with those selected choosing the remaining three.

Bonacic's bill would give only the majority leaders the power to appoint two members each to a redistricting commission, and the appointed members would select a fifth.

The Gianaris/Jeffries bill has a nominations committee that is appointed solely by conference leaders, which is a result of party negotiations last session.

"The specifics can and should be negotiated just like any other piece of legislation that winds its way through the process. The problem is that Senate Republicans have showed no willingness to have a frank and honest discussion about redistricting reform," said Gianaris.

At a March 14 press conference conducted by Reshape NY, Kolb said his conference will introduce a redistricting reform bill.

"When Gov. Cuomo sent his bill out, I sent him a letter back immediately saying I want to sign on to your bill but here are three or four points we want to see modified," said Kolb. "Its not about me. It's about making the bill as bipartisan as possible."

Kolb described the coming bill as a modified version of the governor's bill.

"This week Bob Oaks from our conference will introduce a nonpartisan redistricting bill which encompasses Gov. Cuomo's bill plus the three or four points we asked Gov. Cuomo to consider," said Kolb on March 14.

One of those points is where prisoner populations would be counted.

Legislation passed last session changed the law to require prisoners be counted in the districts they are from and not where they are incarcerated. The bill was supported heavily by Democrats and called unconstitutional by Republicans.

If the Legislature and governor are unable to agree on new district maps by the middle of next year, the judiciary would be delegated the responsibility.

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