The latest hope of overhauling New York politics by creating more competitive elections rests with closed-door horse trading this week by the Legislature's powerful leaders and Gov. Andrew Cuomo.
Election district lines drawn by the majority parties — Republicans in the Senate and Democrats in the Assembly — are expected to be voted on Monday, Tuesday or Wednesday.
All had promised in the 2010 elections that it wouldn't come down to this.
They pledged — most of them in writing — to create an independent panel to redraw election districts, a move that would end the traditional purpose of cementing the majority parties' power for another 10 years. But shortly after the majorities took office in January 2011, they abandoned the pledge made to former New York City Mayor Ed Koch and his New York Uprising reform group.
"We have significant concerns and the fact that it's happening behind closed doors is fueling our concern," said Susan Lerner of Common Cause-NY, a good-government group. "There should be a public discussion with the give-and-take of public hearings ... on any proposals the leaders may have arrived at in secret negotiations."
Cuomo, as a candidate in 2010, said he would fight for an independent redistricting commission to be sure "neutral umpires, not biased insiders" draw the lines for the next decade. Now, he says it's mostly up to the Legislature and courts, although he still vows to veto plans drawn for partisan gain.
"This is their problem," Cuomo said. "This is a problem that is now between the Legislature and the judiciary."
This week, the Senate's Republican majority and the Assembly's Democratic majority are expected to make public their plan followed by a vote.
Cuomo then could either sign it into law or veto it. The Democrat already rejected the first proposal, released weeks ago, before a second round of public hearings. Cuomo called those lines wholly unacceptable.
The majorities last week failed to agree on new congressional lines, which must eliminate two seats because of New York's slow population growth. Those plans are now in a federal court, although a deal struck behind closed doors is still possible.
All sides try to soften criticism for the current process by saying they support a constitutional amendment that could require an independent commission to the handle the process, beginning in 2022. For weeks, that proposal — long sought by good-government advocates — has been part of the backroom dealing.
District lines need to be final within weeks to prepare the state for a June primary.
"This could be one of the shortest campaign seasons in history," Cuomo said last week. "That's bad for democracy."
Cuomo signaled he'd withhold his veto if the majorities agree to improved lines and commit to the constitutional change.
"What you don't achieve in that (veto) option is reform," Cuomo said. "And years from now the Legislature draws the lines once again."
Mixing a long-term, constitutional fix gives legislative leaders an advantage in drawing the lines needed now and avoiding a veto, which could weaken any compromise and any constitutional change. Even now, the Legislature is expected to still have the last approval of any redistricting by an independent panel.
"We're not going to get all that we wanted for 2012," said Dick Dadey of Citizens Union.
The major elements of the proposals include:
- The state Senate Republican majority would add a 63rd seat that would include parts of Saratoga and southern Albany counties. Republicans say population growth prompts the change, which could also help end potentially paralyzing 31-31 votes on bills.
- The Senate would draw in Queens that chamber's first district to have a majority of Asian-American voters.
- The Senate's GOP majority proposes that the two congressional seats that must be lost would be those held by Democrats: Rep. Maurice Hinchey in the Hudson Valley, who is retiring, and Democratic Rep. Gary Ackerman in Queens and Nassau County.
- The Assembly's Democratic majority would eliminate Hinchey's seat and the Queens-Brooklyn seat held by Republican Bob Turner.
But each of those measures would affect election districts statewide, sometimes pitting incumbents against one another in a new district. It can mean a voter of one party can feel little clout if he or she is thrust into a district with a majority of voters from another party. That can raise or diminish that voter's sense of voice in policy votes and government funding decisions in Albany and Washington.