News Coverage on Redistricting Senate Size

Daily News

Albany, land of legal scandals

Bill Hammond
Tuesday, April 17, 2012

 

Congratulations to Manhattan Supreme Court Justice Richard Braun for boiling everything that’s wrong with New York’s poisonous politics down to the essence.

 

Braun ruled Friday on a lawsuit challenging the addition of a 63rd seat to the state Senate — a key part of Senate GOP leader Dean Skelos’ strategy for salvaging his majority as the state voting population becomes more Democratic.

 

“Disturbing” was Braun’s word for the way Team Skelos twisted constitutional rules and manipulated census data to maximize his political advantage.

 

But he also determined that Democrats had not met the “heavy burden” of proving the scheme was unconstitutional beyond a reasonable doubt.

 

So what Skelos (R-L.I.) is trying to do — and may very well get away with — is disturbing but just barely legal.

 

And that’s Albany in a nutshell. Politicians doing things that damn well ought to be against the law but aren’t.

 

As political columnist Michael Kinsley has often said: Sometimes the real scandal is what’s legal.

 

The 63rd Senate seat is a prime example.

 

Skelos had the high responsibility of adjusting the size of the Senate based on vague and confusing constitutional rules from 1894. He had his choice of two conflicting formulas that the courts had reviewed and okayed.

 

But one resulted in 62 seats, which was too few for the gerrymandering plan Skelos had in mind. The other resulted in 64 seats, which was too many.

 

So Skelos had his lawyers concoct a hybrid formula that resulted in 63 seats — and that was just right.

 

Adding insult to injury is how Skelos intends to use this extra seat — by shoehorning it into Republican territory upstate instead of the faster-growing New York City region, where it logically belongs.

 

The result is upstate districts that average more than 4% too small by population, and overstuffed downstate districts. This blatant manipulation violates the one person, one vote principle that should be sacrosanct in a democracy. But it gives the GOP a better shot at keeping its majority in an increasingly Democratic state, and the courts have allowed it in the past, so Skelos is all in.

 

Of course, Assembly Democrats under Speaker Sheldon Silver (D-Manhattan) are doing much the same thing in reverse — squeezing as many seats as possible into downstate areas while shortchanging upstate and Long Island. And this is icing on the cake for Assembly Democrats, who would easily dominate the chamber without resort to such tactics.

 

Also disturbing but legal is how legislative leaders can manipulate their rank-and-file members by controlling how much they get paid. Each leader has the power to dole out committee chairmanships and other leadership jobs that come with stipends known as “lulus.”

 

Silver and Skelos, along with the minority-party leaders in each house, can literally reward favored members with thousands of dollars on top of their $79,500 salary — and punish those who cross the line by taking money away.

 

It’s an outrageous infringement on the independence of elected officials, yet it continues year in and year out.

 

Another broad-daylight scam is double-dipping by senior lawmakers — who “retire” from the Legislature just before taking the oath of office for a new term so they can collect their taxpayer-financed pensions and their taxpayer-financed salaries at the same time.

 

The loophole was closed in 1995, but lawmakers elected before then can still take advantage — and more do every two years.

 

Then there’s

 

the so-called “housekeeping” loophole that lets political parties raise unlimited amounts of money from wealthy individuals and deep-pocketed special interests.

 

Theoretically, parties are supposed to spend this soft money on “party-building” activities, such as voter registration drives. In practice, they use it for pretty much whatever they want — and the law is so vague that neither the Board of Elections nor the courts have lifted a finger to stop them.

 

There’s a reason lawmakers can so easily evade all of these rules: because they write them in the first place.

 

And to this list of Albany horribles we can now add the Skelos rule — which enables him to change even the very size of the Legislature as he sees fit to maximize his chances of winning an election.

 

 

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