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Redistricting reform down to the wire

June 06, 2011
New Yorkers want legislative redistricting reform, according to a recent poll, and some lawmakers and advocates think it is still in reach even though the issue has been below Albany's radar in recent weeks.

A Quinnipiac University poll released last Thursday indicates a majority of New Yorkers think creating a nonpartisan redistricting process for drawing state Senate, Assembly and Congressional lines is important, and those who have fought in Albany for years to achieve that end think it is closer than ever. However, a possible early primary next year could mean reform would have to be passed sooner, rather than later, to make a difference in the 2012 redistricting process.

"It's clearly the closest it's been in the six years I have been working on this issue, and I expect that we will see some progress," said Sen. Michael Gianaris, D-Queens, who has introduced redistricting reform legislation (A.3432/S.2543) to create an independent commission this session and in previous sessions.

The sentiment was reiterated by Dick Dadey, the executive director of Citizens Union, who said, "I can see the goal line where I didn't see the goal line a year ago. I can see how this could happen, and the key to this is the governor's continued public pledge to veto the lines drawn under the old system."

The existing redistricting process is conducted by a task force of four legislators and two non-legislative members appointed by legislative leaders. The process has been criticized as politically motivated due to the apparent conflict of interest created when lawmakers have the ability to influence the outcome of new districts that could hinder or help their re-election bids.

Although Gov. Andrew Cuomo has identified ethics reform, same-sex marriage and a property tax cap as top legislative priorities for the end of session, he has also pledged to veto any redistricting proposal created by the Legislature that mimics past efforts. Cuomo issued this pledge when he introduced his redistricting reform program bill (A.5388/S.3419) back in February, which good government groups have hoped would put pressure on the Legislature to pass the legislation.

"If [Cuomo] were to veto the lines, it would go to the courts and then it is a roll of the dice, and I don't think the Legislature wants to take that risk to let the courts draw the lines, they'd much rather have some role," said Dadey.

Cuomo's program bill would give the Legislature the power to reject the map of districts drawn by an independent commission three times and at that point give lawmakers the opportunity to modify the map.

The Quinnipiac poll released last week found 65 percent of voters say non-partisan redistricting is "very" or "somewhat important," and 46 percent say they support creating an independent commission with no legislative input. Thirty-one percent support a commission with some legislative input, while 13 percent say they want the existing system to stay in place.

While the poll shows widespread public support for redistricting reform of some kind and more than 90 Assembly members are co-sponsoring the governor's program bill, the legislation has no sponsors in the Senate where it is likely to run into trouble.

When Mark Hansen, a spokesman for Senate Majority Leader Dean Skelos, R-Rockville Centre, was asked if the majority leader planned to bring Cuomo's program bill to a floor vote in the final days of session, he said, "We already passed a redistricting reform bill, we are the only legislative house that has passed one."

Hansen was referring to a bill (S.3331/A.5271) introduced by Sen. John Bonacic, R-Mount Hope, that would create an independent commission through a constitutional amendment, which Skelos has said is the only constitutional way to set up such a commission.

The amendment process would mean the new commission would not be formed for the first time until the next decennial redistricting process, following the 2020 census, which has led to opposition by Senate Democrats and good government groups who have called it a stall tactic.

Assembly Minority Leader Brian M. Kolb, R-Canandaigua, said "redistricting reform and the creation of an independent legislative redistricting commission are policies that Assembly Republicans have long championed. These reforms will happen if New Yorkers make their voices heard and demand that Albany make these issues a top priority before session concludes."

The redrawing of legislative lines has to be finalized in time for next year's primaries for state Assembly and Senate seats.

An earlier primary is being proposed for statewide elections next year to better comply with the federal Military and Overseas Voter Empowerment Act, which requires absentee ballots to be sent out to military personnel 45 days before an election.

The provision caused a number of logistical problems in 2010, and the state was given a waiver because of time constraints between September primaries and the November general election, making it difficult to send out ballots 45 days prior to Election Day.

The prospect of an earlier primary, possibly in June, could mean a final redistricting plan would need to be done as early as February, according to Jerry Goldfeder, a prominent election lawyer at Stroock & Stroock & Lavan, a national law firm with offices in New York City.

"If, as a result of Senator [Charles] Schumer's law extending the time for military balloting, the primary is moved to June, petitioning would start sometime in March, and the lines would have to be finalized before then," said Goldfeder.  "If, on the other hand, there is a waiver of the federal law, like this year, and we retain a September primary, then the new lines have to be put in place before the beginning of petitioning in early June."

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