Needed change

The best news that could come out of this year’s contentious redistricting process would be passage of a measure to put future redistricting into the hands of an independent commission.

Republican leaders in the Kansas Senate want to strike while the iron is hot on a proposal to turn the legislative and congressional redistricting process over to a bipartisan commission.

The redistricting process is particularly hot in Kansas this year, and Senate leaders who visited the Journal-World on Tuesday say they have had enough with the contentious process. Even though they are members of the majority party that largely controls redistricting, they are ready to pass the responsibility off to an independent commission. They are proposing a constitutional amendment that would set up an independent redistricting commission and hope to have it on the ballot in November while the 2012 redistricting battle is still fresh in voters’ minds.

According to the National Conference of State Legislatures, 21 states already have commissions that have primary responsibility for redistricting. The commissions are appointed and function in various ways, but several are similar to the plan being proposed for Kansas. Senators say their constitutional amendment will call for a five-member commission that will submit redistricting plans to the Legislature for an up-or-down vote. The House and Senate minority and majority leaders each would make one appointment to the commission, and the fifth member would be chosen by a vote of the other four.

Kansas reportedly is the only state in the country still working on redrawing districts based on the 2010 Census. The politics of redistricting has been complicated this year by splits in the state Republican Party. Delays in redistricting are threatening to set back filing deadlines and state primary elections because potential candidates still don’t know for sure what districts they live in.

In the meantime, a process that should have been settled months ago is contributing to a contentious atmosphere in the Legislature as it seeks to complete its work on a host of important state issues. As Senate Vice President John Vratil, R-Leawood, told the Journal-World last week, “The acrimony over redistricting casts a pall over every issue.”

Both the House and Senate have passed congressional maps that have been rejected by the other chamber. The House has passed a plan to redraw its own districts, but the Senate is still working on its plan. By tradition both chambers handle their own redistricting maps, which are routinely accepted by the other chamber. This year, House Speaker Mike O’Neal has threatened to reject the Senate’s map if it doesn’t suit the House, a move that almost certainly would ignite the already heated redistricting process.

Amid the current redistricting battle, a proposal to turn the process over to an independent commission is tantalizing. An amendment to create the commission must pass both the House and Senate by two-thirds majorities before advancing to the November ballot, which will be a tall order. That’s why it’s important for Kansans to tell their elected legislators that they also have had enough of this contentious and distracting process and are ready to join the 21 other states that have changed the way they do redistricting.