New York state reps: Let's carve state up -- but with a twist

Don’t worry — we’re not about to add four more senators from New York to Chuck Schumer’s caucus. Unlike California, which seems to produce more ideas for creating new states than they do original concepts for films these days, state legislators in Albany don’t want to fight Congress over separate representation in Washington for different parts of the state. Instead, a new proposal in the Empire State would devolve state authority to local regional legislatures while making Albany more or less irrelevant.

That would give Andrew Cuomo the same authority as “the queen of England,” according to one sponsor — an outcome that has to look pretty good to New Yorkers in any case:

Suppose the power of New York’s governor was reduced and instead rivaled that of the Queen of England — basically a figurehead. That’s how the chair of Divide NYS Caucus Inc. describes how an amendment to the state constitution would change the way state government works.

The amendment — based on an old idea of separating upstate and downstate — would split the state into three autonomous regions: The New Amsterdam Region (upstate); the New York Region (New York City); and the Montauk Region (Long Island and Rockland/Westchester). …

The creation of autonomous regions would strip the current centralized state government of “90 percent of its power,” transferring it to the regions, said John Bergener Jr., chair of the Divide NYS Caucus, a statewide political organization. To comply with the U.S. Constitution, the state would still have a governor but with political power about equal to “the queen of England’s,” Bergener said last fall as the caucus held meetings across the state pitching the idea.

Each region would have a regional Senate and regional Assembly, whose members would also serve in the state Legislature. According to Divide NYS, while splitting New York into separate states “is preferable,” it is a much more difficult process, requiring U.S. Congressional approval.

Creating autonomous regions bypasses Washington and relies on amending the state constitution. That requires the amendment to pass twice in both houses of the Legislature, during separate terms. If that happens, it would trigger a referendum by state voters.

This gives local regions in New York what they purport to want most: local control over resources and policies. It’s the kind of subsidiarity that used to be a model for pre-20th-century America, where localities dealt with their own issues, states tended to focus on truly state-level policies, and the federal government remained limited. The tricky part would be discerning what authorities and jurisdictions should devolve to regional legislatures and which should remain in Albany, but that would likely be an ongoing definition even after such a system passed.

Furthermore, it’s all the more possible — if not terribly more likely to succeed — by refraining from defining the regions as new states. That requires congressional approval, which would never happen. This plan only requires the state to reorganize itself, and as long as the new structure still abides by the federal Constitution, it would be a matter for New York and its voters only.

That’s actually a good model, and one that would work even better in California … but probably unlikely to emerge except as a referendum from the outside. New York has enough of a diverse political climate statewide where such a plan could get through the legislative process. California, which has produced repeated proposals to carve up the state into as many as six entities, has a state legislature with a Democratic supermajority that would be disinclined to devolve any power away from Sacramento. Voters have direct access to the ballot, however, by collecting enough signatures for referenda without legislative action. Any such proposition would likely have to find those signatures outside of the Los Angeles and San Francisco megalopolises, as those are the power bases from which the rest of the state would like to separate, but it might be popular enough outside of those to succeed.

In both cases, though, the referenda would still have to pass a statewide popular vote. Will New York City voters go along with a plan to water down their influence? Would voters in LA and San Francisco? Probably not, but it suuuuure would be interesting to find out. And after Cuomo’s performance on COVID-19 and nursing homes throughout the state, making him into a figurehead might seem pretty attractive right now.