One Real Proposal for Reform

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Proposal One on the New York ballot seems to scare the heck out of some folks.

The proposal claims to reform state government by changing the way a budget is passed in New York. More authority would go to the legislature and a contingency budget would be enacted if lawmakers can’t meet a later budget deadline of May 1.

Opponents to Proposal One have taken the Halloween approach. Scary words are coming from people like Gov. George Pataki, organizations like the Business Council of New York and editorial pages around the state. They say that the reform is no reform at all. They say that instead of "three men in a room" passing a budget (the governor, the Assembly Speaker and the Senate Majority Leader), it would create "two men in a room" (eliminating the governor).Opponents hope the "boo" tactics will convince you to vote no on the proposal. Pataki calls it "dangerous." One group has taken to carting around a gigantic pink pig (of the pork barrel variety) to demonstrate opposition (it visited Rochester last week)

All this effort. Too bad it’s not centered on another reform effort that would have far more meaning.

I mean rewiring New York State’s redistricting process.

It’s not that I don’t care about reforming the budget – this state surely needs it. But I’d rather see the time and effort expended on a ballot initiative that would have maximum return on the investment.

Other states are tackling that redistricting. In California, Governor Arnold Schwarzenegger is priming the pump for something called Proposition 77. This proposal would give the job of drawing state and congressional lines to a three-member panel of retired judges. Right now California legislators carve up the state, just as they do in New York.

Right now the redistricting process, which happens every ten years, turns into an incumbent protection plan. Just like it does in New York.

Schwarzenegger has apparently been stumping for this outside of his home state. He visited Ohio, where voters in that state will also have a ballot measure to move the redistricting duties from legislators to an independent commission.

I’d be thrilled to see the Terminator visiting the Empire State to help rip away the rewriting of legislative maps from the hands of partisan politicians.

Some states, like Washington and Arizona, already have independent panels working up the lines every decade.

Yet there’s not a whisper about such reforms in New York. Not a peep. And there ought to be.

Visit the New York Public Interest Research Group’s web page on redistricting and you’ll see how corrosive the current partisan process is to accountability. It plays a huge role in sapping competitiveness from most state legislative and congressional districts.

For example, NYPIRG reports that, thanks to partisan redistricting mapmakers, only 11 percent of the 212 state legislative districts have close enough enrollments between the two major parties for competitive races.

Just look at Louise Slaughter and Joe Robach for an understanding. Slaughter’s redrawn congressional district took her from one based largely in Monroe County to a headphone-shaped monstrosity that curls up from Rochester, goes north and west through Niagara Falls and snakes back down into Buffalo. Robach’s State Senate district is two blobs (one stationed in Greece and Parma, the second in the city and Brighton) that are connected by a threadlike stretch barely the width of a street.

These so-called districts are jokes. They mock the idea that a district should have a common community connection. These are manipulated district lines that ensure one party (the one in control of redistricting) can easily win a legislative seat.

And without competition, elected lawmakers can believe they are untouchable come Election Day. That emboldens them to pay less attention to the regular voter. That makes them feel they can take more liberties with policy. Pleasing the mapmakers (the elite of the ruling party) becomes part of the equation.

Independent mapmakers, however, could take into account the connectedness of a district – and whether there is true electoral competition in districts.

The angst over the budget reform proposal is all well and good.

But a reform of the redistricticting process would come with the component of accountability.

And that kind of reform would give voters the power to assess whether the elected official is really paying attention to their issues.

In other words, the redistricting reform would put voters in the position of easily make other "reforms" happen.

© Copyright 2005, WXXI

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