State funding delays stall redistricting commission

Commissioners tasked with redrawing New York’s election district lines expressed frustration Thursday as the group remains in financial limbo, and made a plan to send a letter to state executives to receive the legislated funding to start their work.

The state Independent Redistricting Commission continues to be stalled starting work on redesignating elective district maps following delays in state funding.

Commission co-executive directors Karen Blatt and Douglas Breakell spoke with Department of State officials in the last week about receiving the approved state funding.

“Unfortunately, we have not been able to receive funding yet, and it’s kind of fluid as to why not,” Breakell said during a commission meeting held virtually Thursday. “Unfortunately, we can’t give you an update.

“Right now, we’re stuck in limbo having a difficult time receiving that funding without knowing if that funding is being received by the commission.”

State lawmakers appropriated $1 million for the commission’s spending in the Department of State’s portion of the 2020-21 Aid to Localities budget.

The commission’s co-executive directors are designated paid positions, but Blatt and Breakell continue to participate in meetings without receiving a paycheck because of the funding delay.

The issue was expected to be resolved by state Department of Budget Division officials Wednesday, but Blatt and Breakell said it was not, and both expressed confusion.

“Although there’s an obligation to fund and it’s in there, we still don’t have access to the money,” said commissioner Keith Wofford, a Republican who ran for state attorney general in 2018.

The 10-member redistricting commission has discussed budgetary issues since its first meeting Sept. 30, as state funding has been withheld from a myriad of education and healthcare facilities and programs slated to receive aid because of extensive revenue shortfalls caused by the COVID-19 pandemic.

“Counsel are reviewing the appropriation which limits how the state may pay directly for commission employees, and we are working with the Legislature for a resolution,” state Budget Division spokesman Freeman Klopott said in a statement.

New York estimates a $14 billion revenue shortfall and $10 billion gap because of unprecedented pandemic spending.

“We’ve been at this now for months,” said commissioner Jack Martins, a former Republican senator who represented the 7th District in Long Island for three terms. “The Legislature and the Executive are well aware that we’re not funded. This isn’t a surprise. It didn’t just happen last week.”

Commissioners are concerned with a fair redrawing of state lines that remains timely and efficient as they combat financial and logistical hurdles. The U.S. Census Bureau anticipates delays in releasing the updated decennial population count because of the coronavirus pandemic.

The group unanimously agreed Thursday for commissioner Elaine Frazier, chairwoman of the Capital Area Urban League Board of Directors, to draft a letter board members would review to send to Gov. Andrew Cuomo’s executive and state budget offices to fix the financial hurdle preventing the start of redistricting work.

Commissioners will recommend an administerial chapter amendment to the budget to move the group’s funding allocation forward, hire both co-executive directors and plan how the money will be used through the process.

“This is really a Division of Budget property that easily can be fixed,” Frazier said. “I normally am not the one to say, ‘Let’s bombard everyone with a letter,’ but this commitment had been made, signed, sealed, delivered. The sun came out last week and everything was going to be fine, and this week, everything is dark again.”

Chapter amendments are common in the Legislature’s budget process to fix arithmetic or statutory errors and changes, Frazier said.

“It is a serious act, but it sounds bigger than it is,” she explained. “It is still a tool that is used reluctantly, judiciously, to clean up errors, and this, quite frankly, is an error, but now we have to do something with it.”

Multiple commissioners said the funding delay was unacceptable and the letter should reflect a sense of urgency as preparations for the scheduled redistricting have continued for months.

“This exact conversation has been going on since the commission was formed ... I think it’s more than reasonable for us to say this is unacceptable,” Frazier said. “You made this agreement, you did this and let us finish this business.”

The correspondence will be public.

“We’re behind because of this pandemic,” Martins said. “We need to catch up and the simple, administerial task of actually making funds that were appropriated for this commission available so we can do our task is being held up and there’s really no excuse for it.

“It isn’t difficult, it isn’t as if they need to do anything extraordinary — they just need to do it.”

Reapportionment the state Legislature’s 63 Senate and 150 Assembly districts occurs every 10 years following the U.S. Census to determine boundaries for congressional and state legislative offices.

The new state legislative and U.S. congressional lines are supposed to be in place for the 2022 elections. The commission’s first maps must be publicized by Sept. 15, 2021.

After they are on payroll, one of the group’s co-executive directors will be tasked with notating commission minutes at each meeting.

*Editor's note: This story includes updated comments from state Budget Division spokesman Freeman Klopott.

The commission is next scheduled to meet 11 a.m. Dec. 10.

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