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State Legislature will draw its own new district maps and vote on them

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Jim Bowen
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Next week, the New York State Legislature plans to vote on new maps for congressional and legislative districts drawn by Democrats who control both the Senate and the Assembly after a bipartisan commission failed to reach consensus on the maps.

Critics are calling it a failure of an independent process authorized by voters.

The decision comes after the 10-member Independent Redistricting Commission, evenly split into Democratic and Republican factions, gridlocked over two sets of maps, one favored by each party on the panel. The commission was given a second chance to try to reach agreement, but they declined to act and did not set up a meeting by the Jan. 25 deadline.

Assembly Speaker Carl Heastie said the Legislature now has to act fast to meet looming deadlines for ballot petitioning for the June primaries.

“Petitioning is supposed to start March 1,” Heastie said. “That means we need to start to look to do something very soon.”

Critics harshly condemned the commission for not making more of an effort to reach consensus. An editorial in New York’s Daily News called its members “failures and cowards.” The League of Women Voters said voters should be “outraged” that the commission, created in a statewide ballot amendment approved in 2014, ignored its constitutional obligation to come up with one set of maps.

Jeffrey Wice, a professor at New York Law School and senior fellow for its New York Census and Redistricting Institute, has been involved in the state’s redistricting process for over 40 years, beginning when he was counsel to the state Assembly during the redrawing of the maps after the 1980 census.

He said the Independent Redistricting Commission was designed to fail, and no one should be surprised at the outcome.

“The commission was set up in such a way, with so many twists and turns, and really hard to achieve goals, that it was not really envisioned to be a smooth process,” Wice said. “More or less a Rube Goldberg puzzle that just fell apart.”

He said it was created during a time when Republicans held the state Senate by a slim margin. They, along with then-Gov. Andrew Cuomo and Democrats in the Assembly, included a requirement that any maps drawn by the Legislature could only be approved if two-thirds of lawmakers agreed with them.

They thought that would make it extremely difficult for the Legislature to override the commission’s decisions, but no one back then foresaw that Democrats would hold supermajorities in the Senate and Assembly in 2022, and so could easily approve their own maps.

Wice said the commission needs to be scrapped, and a new one that is truly independent set up in its place.

“The public should be concerned,” Wice said. “To really create an independent redistricting process, we need to go back to the drawing boards and enact a new constitutional amendment that creates a really independent process where the Legislature has no role.”

Government reform groups, including the League of Women Voters, wrote a letter to legislative leaders asking for a 10-day public comment period before the vote is held.

Senate Leader Andrea Stewart-Cousins does not support the idea, saying the timeline is too tight, but she said the Legislature will take into consideration the public testimony gathered from over two dozen hearings that the commission held last fall.

“They went out all over the state, they had a lot of input, a lot of data gathered,” Stewart-Cousins said. “A lot of different opinions.”

Republicans in Congress and the state Legislature stand to lose the most from Democrats drawing the new lines. State GOP Chair Nick Langworthy said Democrats co-opted the process and sabotaged the commission’s work. He said he is looking at “legal options.”

Wice, who was counsel to Democrats in the state Senate when they fought previous maps in court, said legal challenges are unlikely to succeed.

“No plan has been rejected by state courts in over 50 years,” Wice said.

Wice said the process likely won’t revert to the way it was done in previous decades, when the Republicans who led the Senate and Democrats who controlled the Assembly had free rein to draw maps to keep their respective parties in power.

The constitutional amendment that created the commission also requires that the new districts be compact and contiguous, have nearly equal population numbers, and not be drawn to discourage competition or favor incumbents.

Karen DeWitt is Capitol Bureau Chief for New York State Public Radio, a network of 10 public radio stations in New York State. She has covered state government and politics for the network since 1990.