Archive for Friday, August 9, 2002

Bipartisan plan would establish independent panel

August 9, 2002


— Still smarting from bruising battles over redistricting, two lawmakers Thursday unveiled a bipartisan plan to remove  as much as possible  politics from the once-a-decade process of redrawing boundaries for legislative, state board of education and congressional districts.

"What we saw in this year's redistricting debacle is proof that asking legislators to draw their own districts creates an inherent conflict of interest," state Sen. Derek Schmidt, R-Independence, said.

Schmidt was joined by Sen. Christine Downey, D-Newton, who said fights over redistricting created resentment and distrust among lawmakers that made it difficult to reach consensus on other issues.

"Constituents were frustrated with the whole process and instead of building public respect, we gained public discontent," she said.

The two lawmakers have proposed an amendment to the state constitution that would establish an independent commission to develop new districts. The Legislature would then vote on the commission's recommendations, a process similar to what Congress uses to close military bases.

The eight-member commission would be chosen by state executive, judicial and legislative leaders from a list of nominees composed by the Supreme Court Nominating Commission. No more than four members of the redistricting commission may come from one political party.

Schmidt and Downey said they hoped to have their proposal on the ballot for voters to decide in November 2004. To get on the ballot, the proposal must be approved by two-thirds of the state House and Senate.

Lawmakers struggled on redistricting during the entire legislative session. New boundaries are drawn every 10 years using up-to-date census data to even out the size of districts.

But the process becomes a political minefield as legislators try to draw district boundaries in a way to protect themselves and their friends.

The city of Lawrence was at the center of the bitterest dispute.

Most of the city had been in the 3rd Congressional District represented by U.S. Rep. Dennis Moore, the lone Kansas Democrat in Congress.

But the Legislature and Gov. Bill Graves sliced Lawrence down Iowa Street, putting the east side in the 3rd District and the west side in the 2nd District, which is represented by conservative Republican Rep. Jim Ryun. The new districts were challenged by Democrats, but a federal judicial panel upheld the boundaries.

Schmidt and Downey said district boundaries should be drawn to keep communities of interest intact. Instead, they said, the districts are drawn to maximize incumbents' re-election chances or gain advantage over one group or party.

Their proposal picked up the support of Kansas' chief election official, Secretary of State Ron Thornburgh.

"The Legislature proved to be incapable of removing politics from the redistricting process during the past legislative session," Thornburgh said.

Rep. Troy Findley, D-Lawrence, has said he would introduce similar legislation during the 2003 legislative session.

Findley was the lead House Democrat during redistricting and was critical of the process, especially the division of Lawrence. He said he believed lawmakers were ready to change the process.

"I'm hoping that the Legislature will strike while the iron is hot and move for some reforms," Findley said.

Findley and the Schmidt-Downey plan also call for eliminating a constitutional provision that requires the recalculation of census data to remove the count of students and military personnel from their schools and military bases.

Many lawmakers say that provision is archaic, difficult to calculate and costly.

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