News Coverage on Redistricting
Epic redistrict deal in worksCasey Seiler
ALBANY — A possible constitutional change to New York's redistricting process would create a 10-member independent panel to draw the state's political lines beginning in 2021, but would allow the Legislature to make final tweaks to the plan if the Assembly and Senate fail to pass it after two tries.
The details of the three-way negotiations between the Assembly, Senate and Gov. Andrew Cuomo were laid out by Assemblyman Jack McEneny, D-Albany, at a Wednesday evening meeting of the chamber's Democratic conference.
In an interview with the Times Union, McEneny emphasized the elements remain fluid. "These discussions are ongoing," he said.
Under the state constitution, the once-a-decade process of drawing the state's legislative and congressional lines is currently handled by LATFOR, a legislative panel controlled by the majority conferences in each chamber — this year, the Democrats who hold an overwhelming majority in the Assembly and Republicans who control the Senate by a single seat. McEneny is a member of the panel.
That process has been slammed by generations of good-government groups as one in which politicians pick their voters instead of the other way around. Gov. Andrew Cuomo has promised to veto lines that are partisan in nature, and recently emphasized his desire to see the problem solved through a constitutional amendment rather than a statutory change that could be more easily overturned.
The deal being discussed would create a panel made up of eight members appointed by the legislative conferences: two appointees apiece from the majority and minority in each chamber. The eight would then independently select two additional members. Those eligible would have to be out of government service for three years before their appointment, and appointments would have to be made two years before map-drawing could actually begin.
A 10-member panel with equal representation from both parties, of course, creates a decent chance for impasse. In addition, McEneny said there were a complex set of votes required for the panel and the Legislature that changes depending on whether or not one party controls both chambers. (This sort of minority-protection mechanism is similar to the rules governing the new Joint Commission on Public Ethics, where a vote of just a few members is sufficient to block an enforcement action.)
After the panel had completed and approved its work, maps would be voted on by the Legislature. If lawmakers rejected them, the maps would go back to the panel for another pass.
But after a second rejection of the panel's work, lawmakers would be able to directly amend the independent body's maps, although numerous technical restrictions would apply to that surgery. That means the legislative majorities would have control at this final stage.
"It puts some distance between the sitting legislators and the people drawing the lines," said McEneny.
He said the plan being discussed also makes improvements to many of the technical details of redistricting, such as eliminating "block-on-border" and "town-on-border" requirements, which prevent map-makers from breaking apart census blocks or towns unless they're larger than a full Assembly district. This often results in cities and villages being split among legislators who have different sets of towns.
In broad outline, the plan picks up some of the reform ideas previously presented in bills sponsored by Sen. Michael Gianaris, D-Queens — a former Assemblyman — and Sen. David Valesky, D-Oneida. But those measures were intended a compromise that would have maintained tacit legislative control of the process, not a permanent constitutional solution.
After hearing details of the plan, Gianaris called it woefully insufficient.
"The entire benefit of a constitutional amendment would be to take this process out of the hands of the Legislature," said Gianaris. "That is the reform we've all been fighting for for years and years. If the final product still leaves the Legislature with the final say, we've achieved nothing."
McEneny disagreed. "The objection isn't that the Legislature is involved. The objection is that we're drawing our own lines," he said.
Dick Dadey of the good-government group Citizens Union said the elements described by McEneny comported with what he'd heard about a possible deal, and that it included elements his group had been pushing for.
"The sad fact is, the process for changing the constitution begins with the Legislature," Dadey said. " ... We've never deluded ourselves into thinking we'd be able to get, either by statute or by constitutional change, a process that eliminates the role of the Legislature. It would be dead on arrival."
Susan Lerner of Common Cause said that while she wanted to see the details, "This sounds like political redistricting one step removed." The size of the proposed panel was of special concern: "In New York, we have a horrible experience of panels that are even — it's a prescription for deadlock," Lerner said.
McEneny said the political path under discussion involves the passage of a bill initiating the constitutional change, which requires passage by two independently elected legislatures followed by a statewide referendum. That change could be completed by the end of 2013.
As a sort of insurance policy, a separate bill would establish the plan in statute if the Legislature failed to grant the required second approval to the constitutional bill next January. (Lawmakers face re-election in November.)
Cuomospokesman Josh Vlasto echoed McEneny in noting no pact had been finalized, but refused to confirm any of the elements offered by the assemblyman.
"We have said all along that we have been talking about a constitutional amendment, statutory language, and better lines," Vlasto said in an e-mail. "The easiest of these matters is language of an amendment, the hardest is finding acceptable lines. We have agreement on none of the three until we have agreement on all three. And we have no agreement."
Senate Republican spokesman Scott Reif was equally reticent. "Working with the governor and the Assembly, we continue to believe we can achieve historic reform of the redistricting process in the coming weeks," he said in a statement. "As we've said all along, a constitutional amendment is the best way to do that."