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Reform groups wrangle over redistricting constitutional amendment

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Government reform groups are badly fractured over a proposed constitutional amendment poised for passage in the legislature to change the state's redistricting process. Some say it's the best deal that can be obtained and will represent some reform. Others say it's an unacceptable step backwards. In Albany, Karen DeWitt reports.

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Karen DeWitt
NYS Capitol Correspondent

The legislature has released bills outlining a change to the state’s constitutional amendment that they say will help prevent the notorious gerrymandering that the legislature is known for and make the process more independent in the future.   
The proposal has divided government reform groups, who normally have united around the issue.
Citizens Union and the League of Women Voters have signed on, saying in the deeply political atmosphere of the Capitol, this is a chance to get some kind of  positive change. Dick Dadey, with Citizens Union, says essentially, that half a loaf is better than none.
“This opportunity to achieve meaningful redistricting reform must not be wasted, simply because others want a perfect solution,” says Dadey, who says history shows such a solution is not possible.
Dadey’s remarks are seen as a reference to other government reform groups, was well as some Senate Democrats, who have condemned the proposed constitutional amendment. Sue Lerner, with Common Cause, says the amendment is “disappointing,” “somewhat scandalous,” and does not offer even half a loaf of reform.
“I consider this going backwards.” Lerner said. “We don’t have bi-partisan gerrymandering memorialized in our constitution currently.”
And Lerner claims the proposed amendment would do just that.
The plan would permit lawmakers to appoint a panel, with five Democrats and five Republicans, to draw the new district maps, beginning after the 2020 census.  If the panel’s recommended lines are not adopted after two votes of the legislature, then Senators and Assemblymembers would revert to drawing their own lines, as they do now.
Lerner says Common Cause has analyzed the details of the bill authorizing the constitutional change, and has found a number of technical loopholes that she says keeps the power to manipulate the lines well within the hands of the legislature, including the ability to continue to add additional Senate seats for political purposes. The lawmakers’ new lines include a 63rd Senate district.
She says it would also reinstitute the practice of using upstate prison populations to boost Senate districts,  by counting the inmates where they are imprisoned rather than where they live. The current new proposed lines count prisoners as living at their last legal address.
Citizens Union and the League of Women Voters say a planned statute that would accompany the constitutional amendment could fix some of those problems, and they say they are withholding their endorsement of the entire plan until they see that proposed new accompanying law. And Dadey, with Citizens Union, took a shot at other reform groups that he says are continuing to snipe from the sidelines.
“In the end talking about it is not good government,” said Dadey. “Good government is about enacting reform.”
The conditional support of the two major government reform groups helps pave the way for Governor Cuomo to shift his position on what kind of redistricting reform he’ll support. Cuomo, who had demanded that the 2012 lines be drawn by an independent commission, and be non partisan, has been warming in recent days to the idea of less partisan lines for this year, and a constitutional amendment  for a more independent process next time.  The governor has said he also seeks an accompanying statute as extra protection, in case the constitutional amendment, which requires the approval of two consecutively elected legislatures, never passes. 
Lerner, with Common Cause, says an accompanying statute that would fix the flaws and strengthen the constitutional amendment is not enough, and that Governor Cuomo should stick with his original promise to veto.
“I don’t see the purpose of going through the difficult and expensive exercise of revising our constitution to make it weaker and less clear,” Lerner said.
Late in the day, the New York Public Interest Research Group also came out against the legislature’s bills, saying, in a statement,  “We cannot say with confidence that it will lead to a better product in the form of fairer district lines”.
The constitutional amendment proposed by the legislature does nothing to change the Senate and Assembly lines drawn for this decade. Lawmakers have released new maps that are slightly less partisan than lines originally released in January, they plan to approve those lines, as well as the constitutional amendment, by Wednesday.  A federal magistrate has said she’ll release her version of legislative district lines on Thursday.

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