TOPEKA — The speaker of the Kansas House on Wednesday dropped his push for a redistricting plan that splits Kansas City between two congressional districts, even though his chamber had already rejected a bipartisan bill keeping the area in one district.
Speaker Mike O’Neal, a Hutchinson Republican, said the emergence of an alternative plan showed that too many legislators want to keep the Kansas City area in a single district. O’Neal’s plan, which would have moved urban neighborhoods into a district with rural communities more than 400 miles away, drew criticism from Kansas City and western Kansas officials alike.
The House voted 76-48 against the alternative plan, but O’Neal attributed its defeat to other issues. It dramatically altered congressional district lines in south-central and southeast Kansas, and it left freshman U.S. Rep. Mike Pompeo, a Wichita Republican, with a slightly more Democratic district.
O’Neal said the House Redistricting Committee will meet next week to draft a new plan, keeping the Kansas City area in a single district while altering lines in south-central and southeast Kansas as little as possible. O’Neal appointed himself as the committee’s chairman and last week broke a tie among its other members to get his redistricting plan to the House for debate.
“We’ll just pop up with a new bill,” O’Neal told The Associated Press. “Our choices are getting narrowed down to a smaller subset of possible maps.”
Senate Reapportionment Committee Chairman Tim Owens, an Overland Park Republican, said the House’s vote suggests legislators are getting closer to resolving congressional redistricting issues. The Senate passed a bipartisan proposal last month that drew criticism from within the GOP, and a final map is likely to be drawn by negotiators for the two chambers.
“It’s a good thing they’re starting over,” Owens said of the House.
Legislators must redraw political boundaries this year to account for shifts in population over the past decade. The 1st Congressional District in western and central Kansas is nearly 58,000 residents short of the ideal population of 713,280 and must pick up territory. The 3rd District, centered on the Kansas City area, is overpopulated by more than 54,000 residents, but it and the 1st District don’t currently touch.
The debate is complicated by the desire of officials in Manhattan, home to Kansas State University, to stay in the 2nd District with other eastern Kansas communities. O’Neal and Republican Gov. Sam Brownback support them, saying it’s the best way to protect a planned federal biosecurity lab in Manhattan.
But if legislators want to keep Manhattan in the 2nd, avoid dividing the Kansas City area and make few changes in the lines in south-central and southeast Kansas, they’ll have to seriously consider splitting Topeka between the 1st and the 2nd, its present home. Topeka-area legislators in both parties loathe the idea.
Democrats argue that many Republicans’ real concern is protecting the state’s all-GOP delegation to the U.S. House. The Senate plan — which extends the 1st District to encompass Manhattan — drew fire from the Kansas Republican Party because it would leave Rep. Lynn Jenkins, the state’s senior U.S. House member, with a slightly more Democratic district.
“Republicans begin with very significant advantages,” said House Minority Leader Paul Davis, a Lawrence Democrat. “I’m not sure that we need to pad those advantages any further just so that people don’t have to run in a tough election and can stay there as long as they want.”