Despite campaign promises by legislators and Gov. Andrew Cuomo to approve party-neutral boundaries for New York's legislative districts, the governor agreed Wednesday to approve the Legislature's redistricting proposal as part of a long-term reform effort.
The Senate Republican and Assembly Democratic majorities planned to pass the plan Wednesday night, despite condemnation from some good-government groups that the district lines were gerrymandered to protect the majorities' political power and perks for the next 10 years.
A senior administration official said Wednesday night that Cuomo will sign the measure, withdrawing his promised veto of any "hyper-partisan lines." Cuomo ultimately traded his veto for a long-term overhaul through a constitutional amendment promised by legislative leaders. The senior administration official spoke on condition of anonymity because although the deal is sealed, the officials hadn't yet announced it.
Critics denounced Cuomo's decision.
Doug Muzzio, a political science professor at Baruch College, called the agreement a "total cave. A huge flip ... A man of his word? Koch was right."
Muzzio referred to former New York City Mayor Ed Koch who secured a promise from Cuomo during his 2010 campaign for governor that he would veto any lines not drawn by an independent commission or that continued to distort the process to protect the majorities' power. During the campaign, most members of the Senate and Assembly majority also signed Koch's New York Uprising pledge to enact independent redistricting.
"The governor said he is going to veto hyper-partisan lines, the lines remain hyper-partisan," said Susan Lerner of Common Cause-NY.
Cuomo was scheduled to sign the proposal before a federal judge takes up the issue Thursday. A judge can decide to order lines to be drawn by an independent court appointee.
"These lines are in full compliance with the constitution," said Sen. Michael Nozzolio, a Finger Lakes Republican and the GOP point person on redistricting. "We're very hopeful the governor sees it as a good plan."
The Senate plan maintains 13 districts with racial minorities accounting for more than half of the voters and created the chamber's first district with a majority of Asian voters. The plan also adds a 63rd seat through Republican suburbs upstate, but it, too, has more enrolled Democrats.
In the Senate plan, 48 of the districts have more Democrats than Republicans, with 15 dominated by Republicans.
The Senate's Republican majority holds a 32-30 edge over Democrats going into the fall elections in a state where Democrats have a nearly 2-to-1 enrollment advantage.
Redistricting is done every 10 years with updated census data and is supposed to make sure similar communities are lumped together. But legislative majorities have used it for years to stack districts with their party's voters to protect incumbents and further disadvantage challengers.
"We lost the opportunity to do real independent restricting before now," said Assembly Minority Leader Brian Kolb, who leads the Republicans in the Democrat-controlled Assembly. "It ain't happening this year or for the next 10 years."
Negotiations continue with Cuomo to pass a law and set in motion a constitutional amendment that would include independent redistricting. Citizens Union and League of Women Voters support the amendment as a permanent fix, a decades-old goal. That amendment, however, still gives the final say to the Legislature's majorities and also assures Senate Republicans of a strong voice in redistricting should they lose their majority.
The constitutional amendment would make some use of an independent panel in 2022. It would have to be approved this year and next year by lawmakers, and then in a referendum by voters.
The political deal for redistricting will eventually make the secretive process more transparent and improve the way lines are drawn, according to Citizen Action and the League of Women Voters.
Cuomo and the Senate and Assembly majorities say the constitutional amendment is worth the political deal that includes the lines to be used for the next 10 years, but not everyone agrees.
"It's change for change sake," countered Lerner. She also said the constitutional amendment would make redistricting worse, because it would for the first time in law affirm the power of the Legislature to have the final say on its election district lines.
The New York Public Interest Research Group and Koch said the promise of a constitutional amendment isn't worth partisan state legislative lines for the next 10 years.
"How can we trust Senate Majority Leader Dean Skelos' promise to effectuate any future structural reforms after he dishonorably failed to keep his pledge to create a 2012 independent commission?" Koch said.