Good-government groups are divided on a redistricting proposition on this year’s ballot purported to bring more fairness and transparency to a partisan process that has traditionally offered neither.
Under a constitutional amendment approved in separate sessions by both houses of the state legislature, Senate and Assembly redistricting based on the 2020 census would be conducted by an independent 10-member commission. Four members would be appointed by the Senate, and four by the Assembly. Those eight would name the last two.
Minority parties in both houses would be allowed two members. Moving the commission’s proposal to the legislature for consideration would therefore require at least a 6-4 majority from the commission, something that would not be easily achieved in an evenly divided body.
The legislature is allowed to conduct no more than two up-or-down votes on the commission’s recommendations. Failure to approve will send it to court for final review.
Proponents consider this proposition a good start toward reforming a system which at present has only one guiding principle: To the victors go the spoils. In the Assembly, that means district lines are drawn to favor incumbent Democrats; in the Senate, at least for now, incumbent Republicans have lines drawn in their favor. The result is to virtually remove serious competition. The incumbency re-election rate approaches 98 percent in both houses. And even if legislators retire, die or go to jail, the seats they held almost always go to the party that created them through a partisan reapportionment process.
Consider that this proposition, after decades of prodding by good-government groups, was drawn up by a legislature whose fundamental purpose is to maintain its majorities. Would any group of self-serving individuals do anything less than to assure its own future?
Ideally, a legislature should reflect its constituents. With mapping and modern computers that track demographics down to individual households, politicians can select their voters with amazingly predictable results.
The proposed amendment has a few good-government bells and whistles, like minority representation, public hearings and the (direct) exclusion of legislatures in the planning process. That’s progress. The final decision will rest with the legislature, or to be more precise, its leaders. As always.
With voting expected to be light, the amendment may or not pass. Passage probably won’t change much. Defeat won’t change anything at all. Why not cut to the chase and have an independent body, like the state Court of Appeals, draw district lines every 10 years?
Schools state bond issue
I’m surprised that school boards, superintendents, teacher unions and the like aren’t yelling from the rooftops in support of the $2 billion Smart Schools Bond Act of 2014. Maybe they haven’t been asked. Local school districts involved in or anticipating major capital projects, like Kingston, Highland or New Paltz, stand to benefit from passage.
Proceeds from the bond issue are to be used to upgrade technology, build new facilities where students attend temporary quarters, and expand certain pre-kindergarten programs, among other initiatives. Keep in mind that these plans were drawn up by the same people who brought us Common Core.
To paraphrase the late Everett Dirksen, $2 billion is real money. In the current context of state aid to local schools, it may not be nearly enough to address the problem. State funding of local education is about $22 billion a year. A similar amount is generated in local taxes. Every state officeholder worth his or her Albany parking space is bragging about raising the governor’s budget increase of $600 million by half this year, and demanding even more. Two billion won’t go very far in an educational system that currently spends more than 40 times that amount a year.
It’s noteworthy that school districts will be asked to submit their requests for funding after the bond issue is passed. A smarter strategy would have dictated the carrot in advance of voting, thereby creating an active constituency.
In any event, overtaxed New Yorkers will be reluctant to commit billions in one fell swoop on an ill-defined proposal, no matter how laudable its goals.
Last week’s exchange of nasty letters between County Executive Mike Hein and Legislature Chairman John Parete over some of Hein’s budget tactics came as no surprise. The two Ulster politicos have been sniping at each other since Parete, in one of the bolder political moves in recent memory, emerged from backbench obscurity to recruit the entire 10-member Republican minority — with votes from himself, his legislator son Rich Parete and ally du jour Dave Donaldson — to capture the chairmanship last January. Hein worked behind the scenes to thwart an effort to put the best friend of his worst enemy, Assemblyman Kevin Cahill, in a position to render his own life less pleasant. Hein favored Hector Rodriguez for chairman, a sentiment shared by only a handful of legislators.
The final straw for Parete, a very sturdy camel, apparently came when Hein, in an obvious snub, did not invite him, the sitting chairman, to a budget preview with “legislative leaders” a few hours before he formally presented his 2015 budget at the county DPW in Kingston last week.
“I totally agree that John should have been invited,” said Republican Minority Leader Ken Ronk, the man who engineered Parete’s election as chairman but votes with Hein more often than not. Ronk, who does not claim to speak for all minority members, did not go so far as to endorse Parete for a second term. “There’s time enough to talk about that later,” he said. Some people are already talking about it.
Other executive invitees who Hein dubbed “legislative leaders” included Majority Leader Don Gregorius, Ways and Means Committee Chairman Rich Gerentine and Jeanette Provenzano, arguably Hein’s favorite legislator and staunchest defender.
Parete may have thought he got the last word when he wrote Hein on Oct. 9: “When you think you’re the only pebble on the beach you fail to see the tide.” Surely he knows that the never-say-die executive has been plotting to depose him since he took office. Hein’s goal is to install a more subservient chairman, one who embraces the primacy of the executive. He doesn’t want the chairman of the legislature challenging him in an election year.
But as Ronk indicates, there is already brewing in the legislature resentment about how the executive is treating their institution. Battle lines will clarify as the abbreviated budget process wends through October.
Note on the sales tax
Was Cahill being serious or just mischievous in suggesting last week that Hein’s ability to balance the budget, cut the tax levy and fund millions in new programs could indicate the 1 percent sales tax extension might not be necessary?
The sales-tax extension, which Hein says generates $22 million a year, goes before the state legislature in January. And as Cahill has demonstrated, it goes nowhere without his nod of approval.
Here and there
This is the time of the year when pols are feverishly polling, if they can afford to, seeking to discern which issues are resonating with the voters, which way the trends are going, and where they stand against their opponents. At a sit-down this week, Congressman Chris Gibson claimed his internal polling gives him a 20-point lead (about 60-40) among women over Democratic challenger Sean Eldridge. Given how Eldridge has emphasized “women’s issues,” at Gibson’s expense, that finding falls somewhere between unbelievable and amazing. If women vote that way on Nov. 4, Gibson wins in a landslide.