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Redistricting amendment faces scrutiny

Photo from North Country Public Radio Web
Karen DeWitt has covered state government and politics at the New York State Capitol for public radio for since 1990

Legislative leaders are crafting a constitutional amendment to create a bi partisan panel to draw new legislative and congressional district lines after the next census in 2020.

Talks have centered on a 10 member panel, five Democrats and five Republicans, appointed by the majority and minority parties of the legislature, with appointees coming equally from both parties in the legislature. 

The panel would draw the district lines. But the plan would still permit lawmakers to supersede and design their own districts, if, after two attempted votes, the bi partisan panel’s recommended lines are rejected by lawmakers.

Senator Michael Gianaris, who proposed a constitutional amendment on redistricting five years ago, is not impressed. He says the present proposal would actually make things worse.

"Not only would it not be reform, it would be regression," Gianaris said.

Gianaris says an even numbered panel could be paralyzed by the gridlock that now plagues the State Board of Elections, which has two Democratic and two Republican commissioners.

"The whole point of doing a constitutional amendment is to take the pen out of the hands of the legislature," he said.

"To give them the opportunity to go back and amend this plan defies the whole purpose of the amendment."

Gianaris is a Democrat in the Senate, where Republicans currently hold a narrow one vote majority.

He says the proposal also includes special rules for the approval of new lines depending on which party is in power in the Senate.

If the houses are divided between the parties, as is currently the case, with Democrats controlling the Assembly, then it would be easier to approve new legislative lines. 

Under the tenets of the proposal, if Democrats control both houses, as they did briefly from 2008 to 2010, then it would require a greater number of votes to pass the lines.

"It would become a Republican protection plan enshrined in the constitution," Gianaris said. 

"It defies everything this country is about."

Senator Gianaris is not alone in his criticisms.

Newspaper editorials have complained, the New York Times editorial page called the plan "sleazy".

Some government reform groups are signing on to the concept of the constitutional amendment, though they do not necessarily support the specific details revealed so far. Barbara Bartoletti, with the League of Women Voters, admits the deal would be a "compromise", but it would be better than the current system, where a legislative task force draws the lines.

"This is as good as you can get," Bartoletti said.

The League, along with Citizen’s Union, also wants the legislature to adopt a law that requires the same changes , just in case the constitutional amendment, which requires the approval of two consecutively elected legislatures, plus a public vote, does not ultimately pass.

Assembly Speaker Sheldon Silver defends the proposal. He says it’s consistent with the Assembly Democrats requirement that any new method to draw the lines be equally shared between the two parties.

"It’s not one party running roughshod over another party," Silver said. "It’s equal representation."

Governor Cuomo who has threatened a veto if the lines are gerrymandered, and not drawn by an independent panel, has lately been backing away from that stance, and from the legislature’s redistricting process altogether. But he has said that the first draft of legislative district lines are "hyper political", and that he would reject them.

And Cuomo says if the proposed constitutional amendment merely permits the legislature to ultimately do what it’s already doing, drawing its own lines, then he would not support the measure.

"That wouldn’t be acceptable," Cuomo said.

Another open question is which legislative district lines Cuomo will ultimately accept.

The governor was asked to define what would constitute a plan for new districts that is not "hyper political", he could only say he will know it when he sees it.