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Archive for Saturday, January 19, 2002

Line battles

January 19, 2002

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Amid its serious financial battle the Kansas Legislature also will be fighting the highly political battle of redrawing legislative and congressional districts.

In the first week of its 2002 session, the Kansas Legislature primarily has been occupied with budget proposals put forth by Gov. Bill Graves. But observers predict it won't be long before state lawmakers dive into an issue that has nothing to do with money but everything to do with politics: redistricting.

Earlier this week, Lt. Gov. Gary Sherrer predicted, "the budget will go on the back burner," while legislators consider redistricting proposals. That clearly will move politics to the front burner.

The Legislature is required to approve a plan for redrawing Kansas House and Senate districts before final adjournment of the current session. To facilitate candidates running for office in those districts it would be highly beneficial to complete the redistricting work sooner.

There is no more political process in any state legislature. In Kansas, the edge goes strongly to the Republicans who hold large majorities in both the House and Senate and 23 seats on the 34-member Special Committee on Redistricting.

Although the Republican members steadfastly maintain that the redistricting process is fair to their Democratic colleagues, some observers would see it otherwise. For instance the Republican proposal for redrawing the state's 125 House districts includes five districts that would be home to two incumbents. Even Republican Gov. Graves has noted that the fact that four of those districts would pit two Democratic incumbents against one another probably is more than coincidental. In the fifth case, a Republican incumbent would face a Democratic incumbent.

Lawrence has a special interest in the congressional redistricting debate because the Republican-backed proposal now on the table would split Lawrence between the 2nd and 3rd congressional districts. Earlier this week, Graves, who holds veto power over all of the redistricting maps, said he thinks that splitting Lawrence is a bad idea and that the city would be better served by being placed wholly in the 2nd District, represented by Republican Rep. Jim Ryun. Graves' acknowledged the ties Lawrence and Kansas University have to the Kansas City area, but he strongly favors keeping Johnson and Wyandotte counties wholly in the 3rd District which doesn't leave room for Douglas County or even all of Lawrence.

During a discussion with some editorial writers, Graves was asked whether he might consider more favorable treatment of Democrats in the redistricting process in an effort to obtain Democratic support for some of his tax proposals. To his credit, the governor said that the two issues should be kept separate: "I'm going to look at redistricting on its own merits."

It will be virtually impossible to find funding for any new legislative initiatives this year, and, if the legislature runs true to form, the tough budget issues probably won't be resolved until later in the session. That should leave plenty of time in the early days to focus on the non-money issue of redistricting. Hopefully both legislative and congressional district lines can be drawn in a manner that is fair to Kansas residents and doesn't draw any political battle lines that will complicate consideration of the far-more-important financial issues facing the state.

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