ALBANY (Gannett and WGRZ) -- Senate Republicans are again balking at a proposal to set up an independent panel to oversee the drawing of legislative lines in 2012, saying there isn't enough time to do it.
Many of those Republicans, including several from Western New York, are now being accused of breaking a campaign promise.
Before the last elections, more than a hundred lawmakers from both parties signed a pledge from the group Uprising NY, which was founded by former New York City Mayor Ed Koch.
Senators Maziarz, Ranzenhofer, Young, Gallivan and Grisanti all signed the pledge, which stated they would support independent redistricting this year. But now, all are listed as "Enemies of Reform" by the group, due to their opposition to the governor's independent redistricting plan.
Grisanti, who was the only one to return calls from 2 On Your Side, said Republicans are against the governor's plan, because it unfairly benefits Democrats, by giving them a 6-2 advantage on the panel. But that's not true, according to non-partisan groups.
According to the governor's plan, the leaders from both parties in both chambers select one member each, and then the governor appoints the other 4 more members, with 2 of those being Republicans and 2 being Democrats. That gives an even split, according to the proposal, and those 8 members would together elect the 9th.
Grisanti's other complaint is that the panel would be unconstitutional.
But Bill Mahoney with the New York Public Interest Research Group, a non-partisan, good-government group in Albany, said those concerns aren't legit.
"They've started to make an argument that it's unconstitutional to have an independent commission, despite the fact they've already created 15 similar commissions this year, and despite the fact that they didn't see any constitutional problems when they made that promise to the voters last year," Mahoney said.
Mahoney said the current redistricting process, which is carried out by lawmakers, is a sham. Just this week, the state Legislative Task Force on Demographic Research and Reapportionment held a hearing in Buffalo.
"We haven't seen any evidence that (the task force members) actually really care about what the public thinks," Mahoney said, adding that they have likely already drawn many of the districts behind closed doors. Mahoney said any plan that has lawmakers directly involved in drawing districts is fatally flawed, because it continues the practice of protecting incumbents.
Sen. Michael Nozzolio, the Republican co-chair of the task force, explained that lawmakers are under a tight deadline to draw new lines. They couldn't establish an independent redistricting panel in time for the 2012 elections, he said.
"We've long since run out of time for that process to unfold," Nozzolio, a Republican from Fayette, Seneca County, told reporters after the first meeting of the redistricting task force.
Nozzolio's stance is consistent with Senate Republicans' resistance to establishing an independent commission. Their position has been the state should make a constitutional change to establish a new panel - a move that would not allow the commission to be in place for 2012. Their proposal would only take effect in time for redistricting following the 2020 census.
Nozzolio said the current panel, which is made up largely of lawmakers, would handle redistricting fairly. Because of New York's growing Democratic enrollment edge over Republicans, Senate Republicans fear that an independent panel would draw fewer Republican-controlled seats because of population and enrollment trends.
All 212 state legislative seats will be redrawn next year, as well as 27 congressional seats. New York currently has 29 congressional seats, but is losing two because population in other states has grown faster.
The task force will hold 12 public hearings across the state, including the one in Buffalo this past week.
"We believe there will certainly be a bi-partisan redistricting process established. We look forward to establishing the most open and transparent process possible," Nozzolio said.
Nozzolio said the lines may need to be drawn by the end of this year. There's a likelihood the state may move up its primary elections next year to June or August to comply with federal laws.
Good-government groups knocked Senate Republicans' stance. Gov. Andrew Cuomo reiterated that he would veto any plan adopted by the current redistricting task force, saying they are not independent.
"I will veto a plan that is not independent or a plan that is partisan. That's what I've said all along," Cuomo told reporters in Syracuse.
Dick Dadey, executive director of Citizens Union, said there's plenty of time to set up an independent panel, saying the Legislature should hold a special session this summer to adopt one.
Advocates of an independent panel argue that under the current system, the political parties in power draw district lines to maintain their majorities - stifling competitive elections and creating disjointed districts.
"I think competitive elections lead to a robust discussion of ideas. That doesn't necessarily benefit a political party," Dadey said. Republicans "wrongly fear that this will not serve their political interests, when competitive elections serve everybody's interests."
There's another thorny issue for any redistricting panel. Senate Republicans are suing to overturn a state law that will require prisoners to be counted for redistricting purposes in their hometowns rather than the facilities in which they are incarcerated.
Democrats who controlled the Legislature passed the law in 2010, arguing that it is unfair to count prisoners where they are incarcerated because they can't vote. But Republicans fear the change would hurt their districts, particularly upstate where most prisoners are housed, and lead to less political influence.
Assemblyman Jack McEneny, D-Albany, who co-chairs the redistricting panel, said prisoners are being counted where they are housed until the court case is settled.
He knocked Cuomo if he intends to veto the panel's work.
"I hope he will judge on how it was done and whether it serves the people and not who was the person who got to hold the pencil that drew the line," McEneny said. "I think that would be a very petty approach."
Asked about McEneny's comments, Cuomo responded:
"I understand the Assemblyman's point that he wants to draw his own lines. And everybody would like to draw their own, what they call lines, defining their own district. I want to have lines drawn that represent the people of the state of New York, not a particular assemblyman."
2 On Your Side will reach out to our local lawmakers again Monday to get their reaction to allegations that they broke a critical campaign promise.
Includes Reporting By: JOSEPH SPECTOR / Gannett Albany and MICHAEL WOOTEN / WGRZ-TV