NY Senate GOP advances constitutional fix

AP News
Posted: Mar 14, 2011 9:07 PM
NY Senate GOP advances constitutional fix

The Senate on Monday approved the first step in amending the state constitution to require independent redistricting to reform New York's notorious gerrymandering, but not without another fight in the chamber over its most heated issue.

The full Senate, led by the Republican majority and a few Democrats, approved the measure by the minimum 35 votes. The rest of the Democratic conference opposed the GOP measure, saying it delays redistricting for another decade under the long process required to amend the constitution.

The Democratic conference is seeking a law that will be effective for the 2012 legislative elections. That would mean independently drawn lines would be in place before the Republican's 32-30 majority could use the current process to draw lines that protect their power.

The amendment proposal now goes to the Assembly and a potential referendum.

Democrats continued to accuse Republicans of blocking the reform. But a video has surfaced of a 2010 interview with Sen. John Sampson, leader of the then-Democratic majority, arguing against the bill that he and his party are now slamming Republicans for opposing.

"Are we violating our accountability to voters?" Sampson asks in the Senate-produced video. "I know I can make it fair, I can be fair and I can be accountable with respect to dividing lines."

Then Sampson, in the video obtained by The Associated Press, blamed Republicans for failing to reform redistricting during the four decades in which they were the majority, until the 2008 elections.

"But all of a sudden, everyone gets an epiphany that now we have to change the rules because the Democrats are in control," Sampson said, months before voters would throw Democrats back into the minority.

"It's quite hypocritical," said Republican Sen. John Bonacic, chairman of the Judiciary Committee that advanced the constitutional amendment Monday.

Sampson's spokesman says the senator was simply outlining his valid concerns at the time. He notes that Sampson said in the video that he has "no problem" with an independent redistricting commission. During that campaign season, Republicans were the first to support independent redistricting, but now prefer the constitutional convention.

"Senate Republicans keep breaking their promise to pass independent redistricting," said Sampson spokesman Austin Shafran when asked about Sampson's video. "Senate Republicans have been a roadblock to reforming Albany for over 40 years, and now they're pushing a plan that would add another 10 years to their history of failure and record of broken promises."

In the floor debate in which members of the new Independent Democratic Conference gave Republicans the votes they needed, Sen. Diane Savino gave a hint of the conflict within the Democratic conference last year.

"We all supported it when we were in charge," the Staten Island Democrat said. "But we couldn't get it out of the committee and to the floor." She voted for the GOP-sponsored measured because she said "this may be our only shot" at any independent redistricting.

That statement and her vote irked several Democrats

"That, to me, is a cynical scenario that we must reject," said Sen. Toby Ann Stavisky, D- Queens.

The Republican majority called the constitutional amendment proposal the surest way to require independent redistricting.

"It's time to have a truthful discussion over redistricting," said Bonacic, R-Hudson Valley. He said a constitutional amendment is more "pure," more definitive and couldn't easily be overturned by a subsequent Legislature.

"This is a very cynical move," countered Sen. Bill Perkins, D-New York City. "It's an avoidance I think will backfire."

The criticism was the latest Democartic attacks on Republicans over the issue that good-government groups say is essential to reforming Albany's tattered image.

The reform bill is now bottled up in a Republican-controlled committee, although more than 50 Republicans and Democrats in the 62-seat house signed a pledge during last year's elections to enact independent redistricting. Democrats accuse Republicans of blocking reform that could cost them their majority power in elections under an independent, nonpartisan redistricting process.

Democratic Sen. Ruth Hassell-Thompson of the Bronx and Westchester identified the sensitivity of the issue. She said in committee that she has concerns when legislators draw districts and even questions whether their appointees in an independent commission could be counted on to draw them fairly when so much power is at stake.

"No legislator in their right mind should want to give up power," she said at the committee meeting. "That's the elephant in the room."