Once again, the process of redrawing congressional and legislative district lines in Kansas is threatening to derail the Kansas Legislature.
Not only is the redistricting process consuming an inordinate amount of legislative energy on its own; the political battles it is spawning, or aggravating, are slowing progress on other key legislative business.
The redistricting battle currently is being waged on two fronts: the Kansas Senate and the U.S. House. The Kansas House has approved a map redrawing its districts and forwarded that map to the Senate. By tradition, the Senate would be expected to approve that map without changes, and the House would be expected to return the favor when the Senate completes its own district map. However, this year, that may not be the case.
Before the Senate even completed its map, the governor’s office decided to take the highly unusual step of getting publicly involved with redistricting by advocating that all of Leavenworth County be put in a single district. Is it only a coincidence that Leavenworth County currently is split between two districts represented by Sen. Tom Holland, D-Baldwin City, and Sen. Kelly Kultala, D-Kansas City, the Democratic governor and lieutenant governor candidates in the last election? Making Leavenworth its own district almost certainly would mean that Holland or Kultala or both would have their districts redrawn so that they must beat another incumbent senator to retain their seats.
House Speaker Mike O’Neal also has indicated that, if the Senate’s redistricting plan doesn’t pass by what he considers a large enough margin, he would consider allowing the House to tinker with the map. That certainly opens up the possibility for political mischief between the House, which is dominated by conservative Republicans, and the Senate, which has a more moderate Republican majority.
The process of redrawing the state’s four congressional districts is causing just as much uproar. More than 20 draft maps have been submitted, including some that House Minority Leader Paul Davis, D-Lawrence, called “the goofiest you have ever seen.” There are maps that move the entire 2nd District from its current southeast Kansas base to an area that stretches across the northern part of the state. There are maps that string the rural, western 1st District all the way across the northern tier of Kansas counties so that it can dip down and take in urban Wyandotte County. There’s one in which the 2nd District looks like a hook echo on a weather map, wrapping around part of Shawnee County and all of Pottawatomie County and taking in Riley County and Kansas State University.
Lawrence and Douglas County currently are split between the 2nd and 3rd districts. Many of the maps put the whole county in the 2nd District, but some put us in the 3rd with Johnson County.
As Davis noted at a Lawrence Chamber of Commerce breakfast on Saturday, the only thing the maps have in common is that all of them are “trying to protect the four incumbent congresspersons into perpetuity.”
No one would expect a Democratic leader to be totally satisfied with a redistricting process being run by a Republican Legislature on behalf of four Republican U.S. House members, but wouldn’t it be nice if Kansas could cut through some of the current political silliness? Wouldn’t it be nice if congressional lines were actually drawn to recognize communities of interest while making minimal changes to existing districts, as called for in the Legislature’s own redistricting guidelines?
What is happening this year also happened 10 years ago in the Kansas Legislature and will happen again 10 years from now unless Kansans demand changes in the state’s redistricting process.