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Redistricting commission awaits state comptroller’s funding approval

State Comptroller Thomas DiNapoli speaks to the Watertown Daily Times staff in 2019 in Watertown. (Provided photo — Watertown Daily Times)

The state Comptroller’s Office holds the key to release millions of legislated dollars to fund the state’s Independent Redistricting Commission as the group’s time to redraw elective maps grows short.

State Comptroller Thomas DiNapoli’s office and state Department of Taxation and Finance staff are working to establish the Department of the Independent Redistricting Commission as the group prepares to embark on the state’s inaugural redistricting process without the Legislature’s input.

The comptroller must approve plans to create the department so commissioners can draw from the group’s $4 million budget legislated in the 2021-22 budget.

State personnel and legislative staff continue to iron out details officials would not disclose Friday.

“We still don’t have funding,” commission co-executive director Doug Breakell said May 6 during the group’s most recent meeting. “It’s taking a little time, but that’s where we stand. We have been in communication (with state officials) and that’s what we found out so far.”

Commissioners asked when the new department is expected to be finalized and they can access funds to start work after more than a year of hurdles and financial requests.

“I’m done guessing,” Breakell replied, adding state officials have been in recent communication with the group.

Commissioners Ivelisse Cuevas-Molina and Charles Nesbitt pleaded with the comptroller’s staff to prioritize finalizing the department.

“Please move forward,” Nesbitt said, “because at this point, it’s beginning to be not just important, but urgent that we get moving on our public initiative. …we certainly can’t do any of our public outreach or organizational work without money.”

Without funding, the commission has been stalled from creating a website, opening a physical workspace, hiring staff or paying its members.

“The IRC is an independent Commission created by the legislature, and the Office of the State Comptroller does not play a direct role in its operations,” Matthew Sweeney, a spokesman with the comptroller’s office said in a statement Saturday. “The comptroller’s office has recommended the technical changes necessary in the Statewide Financial Management System to facilitate payments and will audit any payment requests which the commission submits. Any further questions are best addressed by the commission, the Legislature or the Division of the Budget.”

Each member of the Independent Redistricting Commission will receive an annual salary of $25,000. Co-executive Directors Breakell and Karen Blatt are set to each be paid $145,000 annually for commission work.

Assembly staff have been in communication with Blatt and Breakell as state officials work to set up the entity as an independent unit within the Legislature.

The Legislature is not involved in commission operations.

In the interim, the co-executive directors tried to post the commission’s open job positions for a public engagement director, a public engagement director assistant, a data manager and administrative assistant on global job listings website Indeed with a Gmail email address.

The employment company assumed the commission was faulty or attempting to scam people without a website or other concrete information, and denied the listings from being published.

The jobs were not posted on the Senate or Assembly’s sites as the commission works to remain politically independent and both houses are controlled by Democrats.

Salaries for the positions will be dependent on applicants’ experience. Pay levels have not been set because the commission has yet to adopt a budget or personnel items for the $4 million.

The League of Women Voters of New York State and 22 organizations sent a letter to DiNapoli on Tuesday pleading with the comptroller to prioritize the creation of the commission’s department to release the $4 million.

“Although the commission was formed more than a year ago, it has yet to receive a single dollar of state funding,” according to the letter. “… If funds for the Independent Redistricting Commission are not released immediately, they will be unable to start holding their public hearings until late in the summer, leaving little time for staff to get familiar with their roles and less time for public outreach ahead of the hearings. Democracy cannot hang in the balance. The redistricting process is a necessary and critical step in defining power locally and nationally for the next ten years. It must be done in a timely, orderly and transparent way for the public to have confidence in the process.”

The organization did not receive a response to the letter as of Friday.

The League of Women Voters has sent about a dozen joint letters with multiple organizations to legislative leaders, Gov. Andrew Cuomo, the state Budget Division, Comptroller’s office and other entities urging the Independent Redistricting Commission to be funded since February 2020.

“We’ve done everything possible to try and get people in power caring about this,” League of Women Voters Deputy Director Jennifer Wilson said Friday. “The groups that are signing onto these really run the gamut of diverse organizations. This isn’t just voting rights or good government groups, it’s all organizations that represent lots of diverse communities that don’t understand why redistricting isn’t being prioritized.”

Commissioners expressed continued frustration as the clock continues to tick: The commission’s first maps must be publicized by the end of September and submitted to the Legislature by January 2022. The new state 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.

“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 Friday. “The commission is funded in the Legislative budget and questions should be directed to the Legislature.”

The department referred all questions to the Legislature.

Commission leaders have been in contact with Assembly staff and are scheduled to meet next week.

Representatives with the Assembly on Friday did not return multiple requests for comment about what details of creating the commission are causing delays in approval, what departments must approve the plans for commissioners to access the funding and when the commission will get the $4 million to begin work.

Representatives with Gov. Cuomo’s office each referred questions to legislative leaders.

During their May 6 meeting, commissioners expressed concern that the state will lose one of its 27 representatives in Congress after federal reapportionment data was released last month. New York is one of seven states to lose representation in Congress with the 2020 census data.

If 89 more New York residents had been counted in the population total, the state would not have lost a seat.

“I think if this shows anything, it shows the voices of every New Yorker needs to be heard and how the difference every person in New York state can make,” said commission chair David Imamura, a litigation associate with Debevoise & Plimpton LLP in Manhattan. “The number of people in a subway car could be the difference of losing a single congressional district.”

New York’s population increased to 20,201,249 from 19,378,102 people in 2010.

State Attorney General Letitia James’s office is weighing legal options to challenge the count.

James’s staff would not say Friday which federal or state agencies the attorney general’s office has contacted about the state’s legal options or recourse.

On April 27, the day after data was released, Gov. Cuomo called on James to review all legal options to challenge the 2020 Census apportionment data. Any errors or an undercount of state residents could easily make up the 89 required people to prevent losing federal representation.

The one fewer congressional seat will place about 777,000 New Yorkers in each district — 60,000 more constituents than in the state’s congressional districts in 2010.

The population increase will also cause state Senate and Assembly districts to swell in size.

“I would like to see someone seriously consider a challenge to that number,” said Commissioner Jack Martins, a former Republican senator of Long Island’s 7th District. “A congressional seat is a congressional seat, but it also means funding. It means allocation of resources, it means a voice in Washington. I’d love to see the attorney general and the governor and leadership in Albany hopefully ask some real hard questions of the federal government and the Census (Bureau) specifically to justify the 89. We shouldn’t just accept it at face value.”

Commissioners remarked how the 89 people prove the significance for each person to complete the federal census.

The state’s representation decreased despite an increase in population size, they added, which could pose additional issues through the decade.

Commissioners plan to hold a round of 18 preliminary hearings across the state for public input on the redistricting process in June or July.

Constitutionally mandated hearings will be held in September after the commission releases its drafted maps with at least 30 days’ notice.

Hearings will take place at an undetermined date, time and location in Albany, Buffalo, Syracuse, Rochester, White Plains, Bronx County, Kings County, New York County, Queens County, Richmond County, Nassau County, Suffolk County and in the North Country and the Southern Tier.

Dates and specific locations have not been finalized.

Martins encouraged residents and groups who plan to speak at the hearings to start preparing their facts and statements now.

“When we’re talking about statements, we’re talking about communities of interest,” Imamura said. “Talk about your community, talk about how you think the lines should be drawn to ensure your community is kept together in a way that is logical. We’re asking people how can you improve the lines?”

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.

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.

The commission is next scheduled to meet at 10 a.m. Friday, May 21.

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