May 15, 2019

Splitting the Empire (Part 3)

The two previous posts in the 'Splitting the Empire' series offered very different solutions to address the lack of representation experienced by folks in 'upstate' New York in state government, particularly the state Senate. The first was to split New York into two states; the second was to formally keep us a unified state, but would create three completely autonomous regional governments, each with its own executive, legislative, and judicial branch,. There would still be a state government structure, with severely limited authority and responsibility. Neither of those plans seem to me to make much sense.

Today, let's look at the simplest - and in my mind, anyway - the most logical approach: modifying the State Senate. First, some background.

The State Senate currently has 63 seats; 40 senators are registered Democrats, 22 are registered Republicans, and one seat is vacant. Each senator represents a district drawn to meet balanced population goals. Given the population density in New York City, this type of districting means that there are more representatives downstate than upstate.

As a result, many upstate senators represent wildly disparate districts encompassing multiple counties. The 51st district's James Seward, for example, represents all or part of nine counties. On the map below, his is the meandering, crazy cloud-animal district just below the 'New York' in the center of the state. Compare Seward's district to Brooklyn, for example - that's one county with nine senators.

The mess of green string that outlines the different districts in NYC helps illustrate the imbalance between upstate and downstate representation.

So -- the simple plan, proposed by Senator Joe Griffo of Rome and Assemblyman Mark Walczyk of Watertown, is to change the Constitution to allow each of NY's 62 counties to have one State Senator, no matter the county's population.

Crazy, right?

Crazy smart, if you ask me.

Here's what that map would look like if this plan were implemented:

The Assembly would not be touched -- there'd still be 150 members, and the districts would be based on population, with downstate sending the majority of representatives to Albany. Griffo and Walczyk say this plan would give Upstate an equal voice, and would help boost the region. And, they suggest,
...more equitable distribution of legislative representatives might well lead to a better and less parochial government for all New Yorkers. 
I'm not sure if it will make our government less parochial - that's going to take people changes, not just district boundary changes. But there are some obvious benefits:
  • having natural district boundaries, which (at least in theory) will bring the legislators closer to their constituents, and vice versa; 
  • the increased number of districts upstate will provide a greater voice for the people who live here, whether they're red-leaning or blue-leaning; 
  • this plan actually reduces the size of government; it's only one seat, but it's still one seat smaller;
  • the constitutional changes would be minimal, although I appreciate there's some difficulty in accomplishing any such changes;
  • there would be no federal impact - we're still one New York; 
  • compared to the other options on the table, the structural changes are minimal and could (again, at least in theory) be accomplished much more quickly; and
  • there's no apparent impact to critical state programs and how they're financed - think SUNY, infrastructure, our seemingly endless economic development programs, and so on.
All of these plans are being brought up now, as we've discussed previously, because the Republicans lost the Senate majority in last fall's elections - for only the second time since WWII, the article linked at the top of the post notes. I had no idea it was that crushing a blow, I honestly didn't.

The loss was almost inevitable, given that six of the eight 'breakaway' moderate Democrats in the IDC, the gang that had generally supported the Republicans, lost to more progressive challengers in the primaries. And, it was also almost inevitable given the ineptitude of the GOP, according to this NY Post editorial after the loss last fall, which I referenced earlier:
Tuesday brought the state Republican Party to a new low, and the city GOP to the edge of extinction.
The biggest change has been a long time coming: Republican control of the state Senate has been at risk for decades now, preserved by extreme gerrymandering and the votes of renegade Democrats.
And while the chamber's GOP members fought off the occasional tax hike and other progressive priorities, its members have mainly focused on what bacon they could deliver for their districts or favors for special interests.
And these guys like the Republicans...
Above all, they failed to fundamentally alter New York's high-tax, high-regulation approach to... everything, which has gradually eroded the upstate economy to dust - leading to the depopulation of the state's most rock-rib-Republican areas.
So -- we know the Republicans are in trouble in our new trifecta environment, and we know that simply re-drawing the district lines to provide greater representation in the state's upper house will not guarantee a Republican resurgence in the Senate. That's going to take a message that's worth fighting for, and candidates that are worthy of our vote.

But I think the one thing that this plan does, and does well, is make it possible for the majority of the state's 19-some-odd million people - the 11 million of us who don't live in New York City - to have a voice.

Whether we sing red or blue is up to the Republicans.

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