ALBANY — The state’s Independent Redistricting Commission will request nearly four times its current legislated funding in the next state budget, commissioners working to redraw New York’s elective districts said, as the entity continues to wait for initial state funds after months of delay and New York faces a $15 billion revenue shortfall.
Commissioners have yet to begin the process of redrawing state Assembly, Senate and congressional lines after months of funding delays caused by the state’s mounting budget crisis due to the coronavirus pandemic. The shortfall is expected to mount to more than $30 billion over two years and more than $62 billion over four years.
The 10-member commission is prepared to request $3.9 million for staffing, services and necessary equipment for upcoming Fiscal Year 2021-22 as the constitutionally mandated group continues to wait on state departments to issue a contract and release $1 million legislated in previous state budgets for the redistricting work.
The request for the one-year nearly $4 million sum is based on preliminary budgets.
“[The] $3.9 million includes purchasing of IT and support services,” said Commissioner Charles Nesbitt, adding additional funds would be needed for member services. “So until we get our contract, we really don’t know.”
Commission co-executive directors Karen Blatt and Douglas Breakell each made formal requests to meet with state Budget Division representatives to discuss commission funding going forward. Their calls were not returned as of Thursday afternoon.
Commissioners expressed doubt the state would provide the necessary, and constitutionally mandated, funding for the redistricting work in FY 2021-22. The state budget deadlines March 31.
Maps must be submitted to the Legislature in January 2022 and are supposed to be in place for the 2022 elections. The commission’s first maps must be publicized by Sept. 15, 2021.
Last week, state officials identified a mechanism to fund the 10-member group and found a location for the commission to be housed within the SUNY Research Foundation.
The commission’s contract is expected to be through the foundation. State representatives told Blatt and Breakell there were continued discussions with the Department of State about contract details.
“So, it’s moving,” Breakell said Thursday.
Commissioners and co-executive directors plan to discuss the contract details via conference call Monday before its next public meeting Tuesday, Jan. 5.
“The appropriation enacted by the Legislature prohibits the state from being the hiring entity,” Freeman Klopott, spokesman with the state Budget Division, said in a statement Thursday. “However, the SUNY Research Foundation has agreed to host this effort and a contract will be executed as quickly as possible, which will immediately provide the commission with access to the full $1 million appropriation so it can move forward with hiring and procurement of other resources.”
Klopott did not answer questions about the Budget Division’s stance on the commission’s increased budgetary request.
The Legislature appropriated a combined $1 million for the commission in the Department of State’s portion of Aid to Localities budget, with $250,000 in the 2019-20 budget and $750,000 in Fiscal Year 2020-21, which ends March 31.
Commissioners were relieved by the development, but continue to express frustration over the funding delay.
Blatt and Breakell, set to each be paid an annual salary of $145,000, have completed tasks for the commission since late summer without pay because of the state’s financial withhold.
“Miraculously, in the last days of the year, we have a mechanism that is going to give us available funding,” said Commissioner Jack Martins, a former Republican senator of Long Island’s 7th District. “Great, but very strange that they found a mechanism. I think we deserve an explanation as to why it took as long as it did. ...This is essentially something they could have done eight months ago, or any day since April, to make the funding available.
“I’m happy for the funding, I think we should all be happy for the funding, I’m just really disappointed we are now literally days from the end of 2020 and we’re only getting funded now, which means we’re not really starting until January. ”
Blatt and Breakell have asked Budget Division and State Department officials about the stalled funding for months, but officials have provided limited or no answers to their queries.
Commissioners pushed Gov. Andrew Cuomo and top state Democratic and Republican leaders in the Senate and Assembly in letters Sept. 8 and Dec. 10, firmly requesting their owed $1 million.
Frustrated by the continuing delays, commissioners this week posed contacting the university research community to discuss logistics, including necessary protections for commission employees.
“That might be a good imminent step unless they indicate this contract there for us is on its way,” Commissioner John Flateau, a business professor at CUNY’s Medgar Evers College, said during the meeting. “We might want to be a little proactive on that if we want to get on the whole of the boiler plate rather than wait for someone else to strip us. ...We don’t want to be sitting around another month or two asking ‘Where’s the contract?’ We have to put pedal to the metal.”
Blatt and Breakell did not have details about the funding mechanism and when money would become available or which state entity will handle commission purchases and reimbursements.
“It’s not clear where the contract is coming from,” Breakell said Tuesday afternoon. “We were just told this maybe 45 minutes ago.”
The co-executive directors asked officials for details, but were answered with silence, Breakell said.
Commissioner Ivelisse Cuevas-Molina, a political science professor at Fordham University, encouraged the group to keep asking questions about the contract and funding details.
“I believe these questions we’re asking are expected questions — questions we should have answers to,” she said. “We should be able to have some of these details so we can have a better understanding that we’re going to have access to the funds and be able to use them.”
Commissioners urged the directors to keep in close contact, and the pressure, on state Budget Division officials to provide the previously appropriated $1 million and request additional funds this year. A statute in New York’s constitution requires necessary appropriations for commission expenses, including staff compensation and more.
The commission does not have a website or physical, designated space to work to date.
Flateau said developing a website is critical, and must be done as soon as possible.
“Even though we’ve been meeting for a number of months now, the public has no way of connecting to us or getting information from us other than downloading these meetings,” he said.
Website development has stalled in the absence of state funds.
Working with the university research foundation may be beneficial to the commission and staff, Commissioner Elaine Frazier suggested, as the foundation works with public-engagement and analytical technology that could be useful in redrawing district lines.
Frazier, the chairwoman of the Capital Area Urban League Board of Directors, suggested the commission contact the foundation to discuss their mission and how they will move forward with the task at hand.
The state’s redistricting process changed after New York voters overwhelmingly approved a constitutional amendment in 2014 to change the redistricting process beginning with the 2020 census.
Recently released Census Bureau data suggests the state could lose up to two congressional seats of its current 27 seats in the U.S. House of Representatives. The U.S. Census Bureau anticipates delays in releasing the updated decennial population count because of the coronavirus pandemic, potentially causing further delays for commissioners.
The commission’s next public meeting is 2 p.m. Jan. 5.