Redistricting group awaits $4M from state

Negotiations on the state budget continue. Courtesy of Tribune News Service

ALBANY — Members of the state Independent Redistricting Commission are waiting on the state Legislature’s direction to access millions of dollars to start redrawing elective district lines months behind schedule.

The redistricting commission was allocated $4 million in the Legislature’s $212 billion budget, which passed nearly one week after the midnight April 1 deadline, and matches the commission’s budget request submitted to the Legislature and the Executive Chamber.

The Assembly proposed the commission receive $7 million in its 2021-22 budget last month. The Senate earmarked the commission’s requested $4 million included in the final spending plan.

Gov. Cuomo signed the final 2021-22 budget April 19. The document was adopted by the Legislature late on April 7 after the April 1 deadline.

The commission receives the money based on actual spending, legislative representatives said. A majority of commissioners must vote to prove expenditures.

“Once those expenditures are authorized, the Legislature will process the vouchers and the comptroller will release funds as needed,” they said.

More than 75% of the commission’s funding is for personal services related to staff and/or consultants, and will be paid out as necessary.

Commission co-executive directors Karen Blatt and Douglas Breakell each have a list of questions for the Legislature and are working to obtain the rules of engagement for how the open meetings and commission will function and the funding model.

“It really comes down to the access to the funding before we can start hiring, anyway,” Breakell said, adding that they expect to get answers within the next two weeks. “Hopefully, we will have those answers prior to the next meeting.”

Cuomo did not choose the structure to appropriate funding to the commission, and is not interested in controlling the independent entity created by the Legislature, according to state budget representatives.

Commissioners agreed to make preliminary decisions, but not post positions to hire staff until the group approves how to spend the $4 million.

Blatt and Breakell will build two budget proposals and necessary staffing, including if an outside line-drawing consultant is most effective versus recruited staff. They spoke in favor of a line-drawing consultant, citing a lack of time to build and train a separate team with that specific skill-set.

The co-executive directors hope to start hiring staff in early May after a commissioner noted the group’s dwindling timeframe.

The group expressed concern that members of the public have not been able to contact the commission or provide input about elective district lines without a website or work space.

Each member of the Independent Redistricting Commission will receive an annual salary of $25,000. Blatt and Breakell are set to each be paid an annual salary of $145,000 for commission work. It’s unclear if they will receive retroactive pay for dozens of hours of work to date because the previous $1 million allocation was absorbed.

The directors will also draft the contents of the commission’s website for commissioners to approve and move forward with their task.

The commission’s first maps must be publicized by Sept. 15 and submitted to the Legislature by January 2022.

“The Independent Redistricting Commission is a Legislative commission with 100% of its appointments made by the Legislature,” state Budget Division spokesman Freeman Klopott said in a statement. “The commission is funded in the Legislative budget and questions should be directed to the Legislature.”

Representatives from Cuomo’s office referred all requests for comment to the state Budget Division.

The 10-member commission is satisfied with the funding and logistics negotiated in the budget, including language that deems all commissioners legislative employees under state Public Officers law — protecting them from potential liability in case of future litigation related to the redistricting process.

Commissioners are weighing the need to retain one or two outside firms for legal counsel, including to address civil rights issues under the Voting Rights Act while hearings are held or defending commissioners against challenges to the new maps.

The state attorney general’s office is the default defense for legislative employees.

Commissioner Charles Nesbitt spoke in favor of the commission hiring back-up counsel because the state Attorney General Letitia James, a Democrat, holds an elected political office.

Representatives from the AG’s office declined to comment on the issue.

The attorney general’s office evaluates several factors to determine if the state elected office will handle a case. Litigation over a state’s redistricted maps or process is often addressed at the federal level under the Voting Rights Act.

The commission plans to hold two rounds of 14 public hearings statewide to start in June or July before federal data is released.

Commissioners have not decided if the hearings will be held virtually or in-person or how the meetings will be organized. Hearings will be held at different times of day to be accessible to all populations of New Yorkers, and will likely follow the Legislature’s rules for timed testimony.

Hearings must be announced at least 30 days in advance.Commissioners have been stalled for the better part of a year to begin redrawing state Assembly, Senate and congressional lines because of delays in state funding and federal data. Reapportionment of the Legislature’s 63 Senate and 150 Assembly districts occurs every decade following the U.S. Census.

The commission did not access $1 million in state funds the Legislature approved for the work in fiscal years 2019-20 and 2020-21 after commissioners voted to reject a proposed contract with the State University of New York Research Foundation earlier this year. The commission rejected the agreement with the state Department of State that would have required it spend $250,000, or a quarter, of its allocation on legal and administrative fees.

State agencies and executives did not make a counter offer.

In December, commissioners weighed taking potential legal action after the state withheld funding from a majority of facilities and programs for much of 2020 as New York estimated a minimum $15 billion revenue shortfall for most of the year due to unforeseen COVID-19 pandemic spending.

The U.S. Census Bureau is posed to release updated 2020 Census data — information used to draw the maps — in September. The data is typically released in January, but was delayed because of data collection issues last year due to the pandemic.

Preliminary Census data released in December suggests the state could lose up to two congressional seats of its current 27 seats in the U.S. House of Representatives. New York lost 126,335 people between July 2019 and July 2020.

New York voters approved a constitutional amendment in 2014 to change the redistricting process beginning with the 2020 Census. The new state legislative and U.S. congressional lines are supposed to be in place for the 2022 elections.

Until the 2014 change, state lawmakers drew district maps requiring passage in both houses of the Legislature.

Representatives from the Senate Majority Conference do not expect the delays to impact a fair and equitable redistricting process.

“While the Commission has less time than anticipated, we would expect the Commission will undertake hearings over the summer, present draft maps to the public by September, and send its final draft plan to the Legislature by November,” according to representatives in the Senate Majority Conference. “The time frame is narrow, but achievable. There really is not an ‘increased risk of gerrymandered districts’ based on these delays, there is just less time for the commission to operate because of the Constitutional deadlines that are established to ensure we can hold elections in the normal time frame in 2022.”

Assembly Majority Conference spokeswoman Kerri Biche said the Legislature intends $4 million for the redistricting commission for the current fiscal year, which ends April 1, 2022.

“This funding is for personal services to onboard staff,” Biche said in a statement. “It will also pay for business expenses such as office space, equipment and software. Expenditure vouchers are submitted to the comptroller for review and approval.”

Other legislative leaders continue to voice concerns about impacts of funding and data delays.

“The Independent Redistricting Commission has met obstacle after obstacle from Albany politicians — from the Governor’s office holding up the funding to Senate Democrats’ self serving actions to make the process more partisan. These actions further erode the public’s trust in their government,” Senate Minority Leader Rob Ortt, R-North Tonawanda, said in a statement. “This independent commission was intended to take politics out of the process. Partisan politicians should get out of the way and let the commission do their job for the voters of New York.”

The commission consists of 10 members — eight appointed by Assembly Speaker Carl Heastie, D-Bronx; Senate Leader Andrea Stewart-Cousins, D-Yonkers; Barclay; and Ortt; with two members not enrolled with the Republican or Democratic parties selected by the appointees. Cuomo does not appoint members and has no role in the commission’s operation.

The commission has until Jan. 1, 2022, to develop maps for state senators, members of the Assembly and New York’s congressional delegation to review.

The commission is next scheduled to meet 10 a.m. Thursday.

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