By Tim Hoefer
So, this is how democracy dies: with a cowardly surrender of responsibility, a censure of anyone not currently in a legislative supermajority, and a feeble sigh of resignation.
Too harsh? Good.
It was a virtual one-two punch to our old friend democracy and it’s every single New Yorker who will feel the full force of the blows. In just one week, the Independent Redistricting Commission abdicated it’s voter-mandated constitutional duty to provide fair, independent redistricting maps; the state Assembly limited the terms of and opportunity for debate in the state’s lower chamber; and then doubled-down on that notion by placing arbitrary limits on citizens’ rights to participate in our own government.
Taken singularly, each of these actions is enough to draw outrage, but this feels like a throw-some-tea-in-the-harbor kind of moment.
For too long redistricting in New York was riddled with politically-favorable gerrymandering, and so in 2014 we entrusted the Independent Redistricting Commission — a new bipartisan, independent committee — to handle the decennial redistricting. We were so serious about this that we put it in the state constitution. For a moment, there was cautious optimism.
Then political reality set in.
Any hope of nonpartisan redistricting came to a screeching halt on Monday, when the Commission threw up its hands, unable to agree on a time to meet, let alone a fair path forward.
Republican and Democratic members of the Commission pointed fingers at one another — but one thing is certain: The IRC’s refusal to complete its constitutional responsibility represents nothing less than a dereliction of duty. New Yorkers should be furious, if not surprised, by their government’s complete inability to put the people first.
And, because the Democrats already have supermajorities in both houses in the state Legislature, there’s almost nothing to stand in the way from them gerrymandering our state into an unrecognizable, undemocratic nightmare. And we would be naïve to think this scenario isn’t exactly what the Legislature has been dreaming of since day one.
But why stop at chasing opponents off the political field, when you can limit their speech inside the Capitol as well?
That’s exactly what a new rules change will do, limiting debate on any bill to four hours, with one fifteen-minute period to each lawmaker who wishes to speak. On the surface, that may sound reasonable, but when you consider budget bills, for example, often include hundreds of different programs, 15 minutes would be hardly enough time to talk about two or three programs. This matches an existing rule in the state Senate. Yes, you may still do the people’s work in their statehouse, but you must do it in an arbitrary fifteen-minute period. Maybe we should call it “Democracy Lite.”
And forget a citizen’s right to directly participate in the process. That was taken care of with a bureaucratic swipe of the pen. In a sudden and nonsensical change in procedure, the obscure but powerful Assembly Ways and Means Committee has decided to limit an individual’s ability to participate in budget hearings, the annual open call for citizen participation in the state’s budget process.
First, hearings were moved to a total virtual platform, then oral testimony was limited from an already compressed five minutes to three. Now, as described in a letter to the Empire Center earlier this week, the Committee declared, “due to time constraints, witnesses/organizations seeking to give oral testimony will only be permitted to testify at one hearing.” Time constraints? From the body that no longer travels to Albany but “participates” in these hearings virtually? From the same body that just blocked citizen access to the Legislative Office Building? That’s not just limiting debate, it’s a total knock out.
If you have the audacity to care about and want to be heard on both education and, say, the elderly in nursing homes, tough luck! You have to pick your favorite. That’s how it works under Democracy Lite.
This rule doesn’t just threaten members of the opposition, but anyone seeking to testify on a budget issue. Organizations on the political right and left, and every single New Yorker have just had their fundamental right to petition their government limited.
Governor Hochul promised to focus on creating a more open and transparent government. This can’t be what she had in mind. The IRC’s abdication of its redistricting duties undermines her efforts to reform a corrupt state. The Legislature’s rule changes make that corruption laughably obvious.
Is it hopeless? No, not yet. Democracy is government by the people, and it only dies if we let it. So, stand up New York! The match isn’t over; it’s only the second round.
Tim Hoefer is president and CEO of the Empire Center.