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Backroom talks yield deals on divisive issues

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The New York Senate and Assembly approved new electoral district lines, as Governor Cuomo and legislative leaders announced agreement on a number of other unrelated issues yesterday. Advocates immediately called the deal on the new lines an assault on voter rights.

The redistricting announcement last night came as backroom talks yielded agreements on expansion of the state's DNA data base, pension reform, and an amendment to allow more gambling in New York. Karen DeWitt reports.

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Karen DeWitt
NYS Capitol Correspondent

After months of hearings, debate, and closely guarded private negotiations, the state Senate and Assembly task force on restricting, known as LATFOR, finally moved to adopt new district lines and send them to floor for a vote.

The move raised an outcry from the legislature’s Black and Hispanic caucus, who say the lines for the new Senate districts are a “vicious assault” on federal Voting Rights Act. Assemblyman  Karim Camara, chair of the caucus, says on Long Island, and in Rochester and Buffalo, African American voters are splintered into separate districts, diluting their voting strength.  

“The battle will not end today,” Camara said. “We intend to explore all of our options, including the possibility of a lawsuit.” 

Nevertheless, several of the caucus members say they still plan to vote for the new lines anyway. 

LATFOR co-chair Senator Michael Nozzolio says the new lines comply with the federal and state constitutions, as well as the voting rights act, and he says the charges by caucus members are wrong.

“It belies the demographics,” says Nozzolio, who says  add 13 minority majority districts have  been preserved and strengthened in the new district lines.  He says the first ever Asian American district has also been created.

There are a number of other complications preventing smooth passage of the new lines. For one thing, lawmakers believe they need Governor Cuomo’s approval.  Cuomo has indicated he will accept the new lines, if lawmakers also pass a constitutional amendment to ensure that a panel, appointed by the legislature, draws the lines next time, after the 2020 census. Cuomo says he’s also seeking a separate statute that ASLO requires the lines be drawn by a new panel, as a kind of insurance policy, in case the constitutional amendment is not ultimately approved.  And the governor says he won’t sign off until he gets that assurance.

“My trust level is low, my skepticism is high,” the governor said during the days of talks. “Let me see the law.”

A second wrinkle involved the federal courts. A federal magistrate set a deadline of Thursday for the legislature to demonstrate that they can agree on their own new district lines.  

Senator Nozzolio says the new lines needed the governor’s blessing, or else, he says, the courts would
“seize jurisdiction” and redraw the Senate and Assembly lines.  

“Two house passage with the governor’s signature is imperative,” Nozzolio said.

While some government reform groups have signed on to a deal that includes a constitutional amendment for reform in the future, others have not. Sue Lerner, with Common Cause, is urging the governor to follow through on his original threat to veto the lines if they are gerrymandered. She says the lines approved by the LATFOR task force are still hyper partisan. 

Lerner says lawmakers “left the most bizarre districts anyone has ever seen” intact.

Senate Democrats, who are in the minority party in that house, and who have the most to lose from the new lines, in the final hours still held out hope that the governor would still use his veto pen. Senator Martin Dilan is the Senate Democrat’s representative on the LATFOR task force. 

“It would be unfortunate if he really signs these lines,” said Dilan. “If he does, I would believe that he went back on his word.”  

By early evening, Governor Andrew Cuomo and legislative leaders had reached a deal on a number of issues including a redistricting plan, expansion of the state’s DNA data base, pension reform, and a constitutional amendment to allow up to seven new gambling casinos in New York.   

The agreement on the expansion of the state’s DNA data base includes allowing law enforcement for the first time  to take samples from those convicted of misdemeanors.

Assembly Speaker Sheldon Silver says he secured some protections in the new law that will allow defense attorneys greater access to the DNA data base in order to prove their client’s innocence.

There’s also agreement on a new benefit tier for public workers, it will not include Cuomo’s request that 401k style options be offered to new workers. The retirement age for future workers will also be raised from age 62 to age 63.

The Speaker says first passage of a constitutional amendment will allow up to seven new gambling casinos in the state, the exact locations to be decided later.

“We will deal with where, when, how, next year,” the Speaker said.

And he says there’s agreement on redistricting. The governor will accept the legislature’s lines, in exchange for a constitutional amendment and an accompanying law to reform the process the next time around, after 2020.

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