Redistricting group awaits $4M from state

Courtesy of Tribune News ServiceNegotiations on the state budget continue.

ALBANY — Members of the state Independent Redistricting Commission are waiting on the state Legislature’s direction, and Gov. Andrew Cuomo to sign the 2021-22 state budget, 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.

“We are just waiting for the governor to sign it,” Commissioner David Imamura said Monday during the commission’s first meeting since the budget’s passage. Imamura is a litigation associate with Debevoise & Plimpton LLP in Manhattan.

The governor had not signed the budget into law as of press time Wednesday.

Representatives from Cuomo’s office would not answer questions about the governor’s review of the 2021-22 budget or his plans to sign the document.

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

Several commissioners noted the budget has to be signed into law first.

Commissioner George Winner, a former Finger Lakes Republican legislator of 30 years, suggested not waiting.

“I didn’t think it would be all that reckless to proceed and presuming the legislative budget is going to be adopted, and therefore, that we could start working,” he said. “I just think we don’t need to really delay working based upon some paranoia that the governor is going to not sign the budget. That’s not going to happen.”

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.

“I don’t think we’re in fear that the governor is not going to sign the budget and we’re not going to get our money, it’s a matter of when and how we’d operate to go ahead and spend it,” Breakell replied to Winner.

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 final 2021-22 budget, adopted by the Legislature late on April 7, will automatically become law Monday, or 10 days after passage, excluding Sundays, if the governor neglects to sign the document.

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 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.

“Very little about what we’ve seen in the early stages of the redistricting process has instilled confidence,” Assembly Minority Leader William Barclay, R-Pulaski, said in a statement. “There have been significant funding issues and logistical hurdles that have caused delays, resulting in legitimate concerns on how this is all going to move forward. We had a framework in place that provided fairness and gave all conferences a voice in the process. Moving away from that has only increased the concerns.”

“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. April 29.

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