On Tuesday, November 4, residents of New York State will be presented with three state propositions, located on the backs of their ballots, the heftiest one being a proposal to revise the state’s redistricting procedure.
That proposition calls for reforming the process by which new state legislative and congressional district lines are drawn, an action the State Constitution requires to be done every 10 years. Currently, the State Legislature and the governor draw the lines, but the new proposition would create a special commission to determine the district lines and submit them to the legislature, which will either approve or reject them.
“The idea is to take some of the partisanship out of it,” said Assemblyman Fred W. Thiele Jr., explaining that the process often becomes a battle of Democrats versus Republicans, and of majority party versus minority. “It is a highly political, highly partisan process. The self-interest of the majority party … [often comes in], where they simply foster those partisan interests to squeeze out as many seats for their party.”
If the proposition is approved, a 10-member commission will be established by state officials every decade beginning in 2020. Eight members will be appointed by the four state legislative leaders, and those appointees will select the remaining two. When the redistricting process is under way, the commission would hold 12 public hearings throughout the state and report the public’s comments back to the legislature.
Ultimately, the commission would submit its redistricting plan as a single bill to the State Assembly and Senate, and the legislature would give a final stamp of approval. But that’s where the proposition draws a lot of criticism, according to Mr. Thiele.
The commission will be made up of individuals independent from state government—the proposal mandates that members could not be part of the state legislature or the U.S. Congress, or have been another elected state official, within three years of appointment; also excluded are state or legislative employees, lobbyists registered in the state, and political party chairmen. But critics say the process will not be independent enough, because the legislature will still have the final say on where district boundaries would be.
Also, if the commission’s proposed new districts fail to pass both houses in Albany, the commission would be tasked with revising the maps and submitting them a second time, to be approved or rejected. After that, the legislature would be permitted to revise the proposals as necessary to win approval.
Bill Mahoney, a research coordinator at the New York Public Interest Research Group, or NYPIRG, said that although he is happy to see the possible end of the current redistricting process—he described it as “broken”—he said he finds the proposition, and the proposed new process, just as disappointing. Even with the guidelines set for who can be on each redistricting commission, Mr. Mahoney said, it is likely that the appointed members will still have jobs relating to state government. He also found the legislature’s involvement problematic.
“This proposition doesn’t come close to being a solution,” he said.
While saying he is not against the proposition, Mr. Thiele essentially agreed with Mr. Mahoney. “I support it because I think it’s certainly better, and it’s a more transparent and open process, but I myself would have liked to have seen a more independent process,” he said. “Ultimately, the legislature [still] has a lot to say about how these lines are drawn.”
The second proposition on the ballots is, as Mr. Thiele described it, a “housekeeping measure”: Its purpose is to allow the electronic distribution of state legislative bills.
Currently, the State Constitution requires that a physical printed copy of all bills be placed on a legislator’s desk three days before he or she votes on them. The proposition would amend the Constitution to keep up with the times, saying that electronic versions of the bills apply as well.
“Literally all of the these bills have to be printed in paper on our desks,” Mr. Thiele said. “This would just allow them to be on our desks in an electronic form.”
The third and final proposition is the Smart Schools Bond Act, which, if approved, will authorize the creation of state debt—bonds would issued to generate a total of $2 billion—to distribute to school districts, so they can invest in technology for students. That includes everything from purchasing interactive whiteboards and computers to installing routers for wireless and broadband internet. Districts also would be able to use the money to install high-tech security measures for school buildings.
But the proposition also allows schools to use the money to construct pre-kindergarten facilities—something that Mr. Thiele said he views as unnecessary, because he thinks it will benefit New York City far more than Long Island and the rest of the state.
Mr. Thiele said the proposition is problematic, because it involves borrowing and bonding rather than providing schools permanent funding that they can incorporate into annual operating expenses—an important factor, as electronic devices easily become outdated or overused within a few years.
There also has not been a lot of support for the bond act from state officials. Governor Andrew M. Cuomo proposed it in January and has since “abandoned it,” Mr. Thiele said, but he added that even though the proposition was not well thought out, it has to be presented to the public for a vote.
“From the legislative point of view, when it comes to a bond like this for education … it’s the feeling that the voters should decide this,” he said.