Critics Call New York Senate Redistricting Bill Inadequate

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A partisan argument broke out Monday in the New York State Senate over the issue of redrawing district lines, as pressure mounts on the chamber's Republican conference to adopt a plan for an independent commission soon.

Senate Republicans approved a plan that would change the New York's constitution to require that new district lines be drawn by a non–partisan commission. Senate sponsor John Bonacic said he picked up the bill from previous sponsors in earlier decades because it's the most comprehensive solution.

"I thought it was pure, it was simple, it was independent it was bi-partisan," Bonacic said. "It's as truthful as we can get when it comes to drawing lines for redistricting."

But changing the state's constitution requires the votes of two consecutively elected state legislatures, and then approval by the voters in a general election. The earliest that the constitutional changes could take place would be in November 2013 — long after the 2012 deadline for drawing new district lines that will be in place for the next decade.

That's too little too late, said Dick Dadey with the reform group Citizens Union.

"It essentially kicks the can down the road 11 years away to 2022," said Dadey. "We need redistricting reform now."

Citizens Union has joined with other reform groups and prominent individuals, including several GOP lawmakers, to push for the reforms this year. 

The Census Bureau requires the redrawing of districts every 10 years. In past redistricting efforts, Republicans who led the Senate, and Democrats who dominate the Assembly, have each drawn their own district lines, favoring the parties in power in each house.

The Assembly’s Republican Leader, Brian Kolb, who is in the minority in that house with Republicans holding 51 seats to the Democrats' 99, said that arrangement has greatly altered the area he represents over the years, as Democrats changed the boundaries of his Assembly district to benefit Assembly Democrats in neighboring districts and minimize the power of Republicans.

Kolb said when he first became an assemblyman, his district was contiguous and the largely rural area took less than an hour to cross by car. Now, with the redistricting of 2002, that's changed. His district now careens through five counties and the drive across the district now takes 2-1/2 hours.

"It's a crazy district," Kolb said.

During the past few decades, the number of Republicans in the state has dwindled, while the number of Democrats has grown. The Senate GOP has also had to resort to increasing contortions to keep Republican Senators in power. Senator Diane Savino, a Democrat whose district encompasses Staten Island and Brooklyn, joked that she has to cross the city’s most expensive toll bridge, the Verrazano, to travel throughout her district. But, more importantly, she said her attention is divided among distinctly different neighborhoods.

"It's unfair," Savino said.

Democrats, on the floor of the Senate, tried to bring to the floor alternative bills to achieve the redistricting reform sooner but were rebuffed. Senator Michael Gianaris, who sponsors a bill similar to Governor Andrew Cuomo's that would require non-partisan redistricting, accused Senate Republicans of breaking a signed campaign pledge that they would reform redistricting for the current cycle.

"I just want to be clear that this concurrent resolution does not satisfy that promise," said Gianaris.

Democrats held the Senate for two years, from 2008 through 2010. During that time they failed to muster support for an independent restricting commission. Dadey, with Citizen’s Union, said if Senate Democrats had approved a constitutional amendment, then the current elected legislature could have passed it this year, voters could have voted in November, and the constitutional change would be in place in time for redistricting.  He said because of the Democrats' failure, government reform groups have resorted to their plan B: pushing for a legislative solution instead.

"It was disappointingly not addressed," said Dadey, "which is why we now have to resort to a legislation-only strategy."

Senate Republicans said the legislative solution would present its own constitutional problems, an argument Dadey and other reforms call a "red herring."

Senate sponsor Bonacic said the constitutional amendment voted on Monday does not preclude an agreement to reform redistricting sooner.