EDITORIAL: Consider county-based state Senate

The New York state senate chambers
The New York state senate chambers

Categories: Editorial, Opinion

Changing forms of government isn’t easy, nor is it always desired by the people it’s intended to benefit.

Just ask the residents of Saratoga Springs.

So state lawmakers seeking to change the way the state Senate is arranged in order to give upstate a greater voice in the Legislature face an uphill battle.

Under a bill (A6461/S2047) put forth each year by state Sen. Joe Griffo, most recently last month, representation in the state Senate would no longer be based on population, but by county.

The new arrangement would mirror the form and intent of the U.S. Senate, where each state receives two senators regardless of their population.

With much of the power in state government concentrated in New York City and its suburbs, where Democrats dominate the political landscape, the idea behind the plan is to help upstate — whose counties are less densely populated — have a greater voice in state government.

Under this scenario, Hamilton County and its 4,400 residents would have the same Senate representation as Kings County (Brooklyn) and its 2.55 million residents.

Under the current party enrollment, upstate counties represented by their own senator would gain the edge in the Senate, since Republican-controlled counties outnumber Democrat counties 37-25.

The idea is certainly better than more radical efforts to split the state into three geographic regions or even into two states to help upstate. But we’re not sure it’s either fair, feasible or even necessary.

First, is it really fair that one county whose population could probably fit inside one building in Brooklyn has the same number of votes?

Secondly, it was only two years ago that Democrats gained the majority in the Senate after a decade of Republican control. In fact, Republicans have been in control of the Senate for most of the past half-century. Maybe the answer to the upstate-downstate split isn’t changing the format of the Senate, but getting more people upstate to vote Republican.

Even if lawmakers agree on the idea, the proposal faces a major obstacle – a 1964 U.S. Supreme Court ruling that held that legislatures must be apportioned by population. Lawmakers also would need to amend the state constitution, a legislative process that takes at least two years and is currently controlled by Democrats.

It also would have to be approved by voters, the majority of whom are Democrats.

Nonetheless, anything that can be done to help give upstate more of a voice and provide needed political balance in state government is worth considering.

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