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Redistricting begins, amid controversy

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Albany lawmakers are starting work on redistricting - drawing new electoral district lines to reflect population changes found by the last Census.

Traditionally, that's a highly political process driven by the major parties. Called "gerrymandering" -- it's held responsible for insuring long-held incumbencies in the state Senate and Assembly, and Congress.

Karen Dewitt has this report on the push to find a new, nonpartisan way to draw the districts.

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Karen DeWitt
NYS Capitol Correspondent

The legislative task force on redistricting met for the first time to schedule a series of public hearings around the state to begin the process of drawing new district lines for Senate, Assembly and Congressional districts. 

Gov. Andrew Cuomo is threatening to veto any new gerrymandered districts the legislature proposes, a threat one chair of the legislative commission dismissed as “petty.”

The panel is not the independent redistricting commission pushed in a bill by Governor Cuomo earlier this year. Eighty Assembly Democrats signed on to Cuomo’s bill, but it stalled in the GOP led State Senate.

The co-chair of the task force, Assemblyman Jack McEneny of Albany, said time is running out to draw the new lines, and the panel will go ahead with its work. The Democratic Assemblyman also chided Governor Cuomo, saying that before the governor issues threats, he ought to first see what the task force decides.

“That would be a dumb reason to veto it,” McEneny said. “He should judge it on the quality of the product.”

Assemblyman McEneny said there’s too much time spent worrying about who will do the redistricting rather than on how it’s done. The assemblyman said he hopes the governor judges the final product on whether it “serves the people…

“And not who was the person who got to hold the pencil that drew the lines,” said McEneny. “That would be a very petty approach.”

Speaking in Syracuse, Governor Cuomo said he disagrees with the assemblyman’s “unkind words”.  He also said he doubts that he could accept any district lines drawn by the legislative task force because it does not meet his criteria as nonpartisan.

“I will veto a plan that is not independent or a plan that is partisan,” said Cuomo, who says he “understands” Assemblyman McEneny’s desire to “draw his own lines”. 

“I want to have lines drawn that represent the people of the State of New York,” Cuomo said.

Senate Republicans, who did not act on Cuomo’s bill, say they are for a new, nonpartisan redistricting process, just not right now. They support a constitutional amendment to establish independent redistricting. The mechanics of changing the constitution require that two consecutively elected legislatures approve a measure, before it goes before voters in a subsequent election. That would mean that independent redistricting would not take place until the 2022 election cycle, leaving the Senate GOP to draw protected districts for another decade.  

The Republicans, who hold on to the Senate by a one vote majority, have more to lose from nonpartisan redistricting than Assembly Democrats. Over the years, as the number of GOP voters has dwindled in the state, Republicans have carved out increasingly misshapen Senate districts to help their members retain enough GOP voters to keep their seats.

Senate task force chair Michael Nozzolio, from the Rochester region, said the redistricting process has to proceed under the existing commission structure. He said because of federal law changes, the state’s primary may be moved from September to June, three months earlier, and that means the new lines must be configured by the end of the year. 

“We’re dealing in the reality that the task force has a mission and a mandate,” said Nozzolio, who says the task force is taking its responsibilities “seriously”. 

Dick Dadey, with the government reform group Citizens Union, calls the task force process a “sham”, and predicts that it will achieve little of value.

“For them to engage in this process thinking that it will result in district maps is a falsehood,” said Dadey. 

Citizens Union is working closely with former New York City Mayor Ed Koch, who has made independent redistricting a priority, and who convinced many state lawmakers to sign a pledge promising non partisan district lines would be drawn this time around. Koch is calling on Cuomo to call a special session of the legislature to address the matter.


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