ALBANY -- Voters on Election Day will decide on a hotly contested proposal to limit state legislators' power to draw election districts that protect incumbents, as well as whether to borrow $2 billion to upgrade computers in schools.
A third referendum question on Nov. 4 would allow the State Legislature to use computers to vote on bills instead of printing millions of pages of bills each year.
The redistricting proposal is the most far-reaching referendum question this year. Some good-government advocates say the wording of the question this year was ginned up to assure "yes" votes.
Redrawing district lines
Proposal No. 1 would end politicians' direct control of redrawing their own election district lines. Currently, the lines are drawn for the legislature and for congressional seats every 10 years by the Senate Republican majority and Assembly Democratic majority, based on the U.S. Census.
The proposal would create a panel with members appointed by the majority and minority leaders in each chamber. A supermajority of appointees would be needed to approve plans. If a court rejects the proposals, the legislature would "correct any legal problems." If the commission fails to approve a plan or the legislature rejects it, the legislature could again redraw the lines.
The issue has divided good-government advocates, who for decades have unsuccessfully fought to push legislative leaders to voluntarily weaken their electoral power. Only about 40 incumbents since 1970 have lost their seats by election in more than 4,000 races.
"New Yorkers now have the opportunity to fix this rigged system and hold legislators accountable by voting yes for Proposal 1," said Dick Dadey, executive director of Citizens Union.
In September, a state judge required the referendum wording to delete its claim that the proposed process would be "independent," because the legislature could still reject the proposals and redraw the lines.
"Spin it any way you like, but after the judge's ruling, it's impossible to claim that Proposition 1 would 'unrig' the system," said Susan Lerner, executive director of Common Cause New York.
If approved by voters, the process would begin in 2020.
Andrew M. Cuomo, as a candidate for governor in 2010, promised to create an independent redistricting commission for the 2011 process, saying he needed to replace the process in which "two major parties collaborated in drawing district lines in such a way that almost every election is foreordained."
But under strong opposition from Senate Republicans, Cuomo declined to veto election lines drawn by the majorities in each legislative chamber. As part of the deal, Cuomo and legislative leaders agreed to amend the constitution to change the process beginning in 2020.
Borrowing for school tech
Proposal No. 3 is the "Smart Schools Bond Act." It asks voters to approve $2 billion in borrowing for schools to buy electronic whiteboards, computer servers, computers and tablet computers, to install high-speed Internet service for schools and their communities, to build classrooms to expand prekindergarten, and to install high-tech security measures.
The borrowing is intended to narrow the computer gap between richer suburban schools and poorer urban and rural districts. Funds also would be provided to nonpublic schools.
Cuomo proposed the borrowing after years of criticism by liberal Democrats for restricting school aid in his state budgets while capping the growth in local property taxes.
"It is a simple fact that disparity remains in our education system, with some schools providing tablets in the first grade and others where the most sophisticated piece of electronic equipment is the metal detector," Cuomo has said.
Critics said the bond act would incur debt for years after the equipment becomes obsolete and new equipment needs to be purchased.
"New York should think hard before supporting this costly and wasteful proposal," said E.J. McMahon of the Empire Center for Public Policy, a conservative think tank.
Proposal No. 2 would allow thousands of legislative bills, which are often hundreds of pages long, to be voted upon when they are presented to lawmakers by computer, rather than on paper as now required under the state constitution.
The issue, pushed by Assemb. James Tedisco (R-Schenectady), for years has been resisted in the legislature, in part because of the patronage jobs in the printing operation. "It's a win-win-win-win," Tedisco said. "It's more effective, more efficient, we'll save $53 million a year and save our pristine forest land."