GOP redistricting fight could mean courts make final decision
Topeka ? Kansas legislators grew increasingly concerned Tuesday that a dispute over redistricting among majority Republicans may prevent passage of any proposals for adjusting the state’s political boundaries and leave the map-making to the courts.
Legislative leaders were contemplating whether the Kansas Supreme Court could intervene if lawmakers fail to pass anything. A federal lawsuit already has been filed because legislative, congressional and State Board of Education districts haven’t been adjusted to account for population shifts over the past decade.
The impasse centers on redrawing state Senate districts. The Senate narrowly approved a plan favored by its moderate Republican leaders and most Democrats. The House, where conservative Republicans have a majority, expects to debate a different plan Wednesday favored by conservatives.
Conservatives contend the plan backed by Senate leaders is designed to keep them in power by thwarting challenges to incumbents in Republican primary races. GOP moderates and Democrats argue that conservatives hope to draw lines that will give them control of the Senate and eliminate it as a check on conservative Republican Gov. Sam Brownback’s agenda.
Some legislators are nervous about letting the courts decide redistricting, but the Legislature is scheduled to end its 90-day session Friday. Senate Reapportionment Committee Chairman Tim Owens, a moderate Overland Park Republican, expressed frustration with trying to find a plan acceptable to both GOP factions.
“I’m so tired of this debate,” said Owens, a U.S. Army veteran. “It’s like an old expression I had in the military: Never try to teach a pig to sing. It wastes your time and annoys the pig.”
House Speaker Mike O’Neal’s decision to have his chamber consider its own plan for redrawing Senate districts breaks with decades of tradition where each chamber drew a new map for its members and the other wouldn’t change it.
O’Neal said the House is drafting a plan to give the Senate an opportunity to reconsider the proposal it approved on a 21-19 vote last week.
“It’s out of our hands,” he said. “It’s totally up to them, how they handle it.”
A bipartisan plan approved by the House for redrawing state representatives’ districts is tied up in the dispute, as are proposals for adjusting the lines of the state’s four congressional districts. Each of the 10 State Board of Education districts combines four Senate districts and can’t be drawn until the Senate plan is settled.
The National Conference of State Legislatures said Kansas is the only state in which legislators haven’t approved a congressional redistricting plan. Eight other states haven’t finished legislative redistricting; two of them, Alabama and Mississippi, don’t have legislative elections this year, and two more, Maine and Montana, plan to tackle the task in 2014, according to the NCSL.
“I’ve never seen it quite this bad on redistricting,” said Senate Minority Leader Anthony Hensley, a Topeka Democrat and, after more than 35 years, the Legislature’s longest-serving member.
The Kansas Constitution says the attorney general must present House and Senate redistricting measures approved by lawmakers to the state Supreme Court. The justices can accept or reject a plan, but there’s no provision for the court to draft one itself.
The state constitution also doesn’t say whether the attorney general can submit a plan that has failed to pass one or both chambers to the Supreme Court.
“That’s an open question,” said Secretary of State Kris Kobach, a conservative Republican and former law professor. “It’s certainly a question that’s never been ruled on.”
The pending federal lawsuit, which was filed by a Republican precinct committee woman from Olathe, suggests that a panel of three judges could allow her attorneys and Kobach to submit plans, or accept one she likes, similar to plans favored by conservatives. Kobach, the state’s chief elections officer, is the defendant in the lawsuit.
Some legislators said neither the federal judges nor the state Supreme Court probably would make protecting incumbent legislators a relatively high priority in considering maps.
“It is definitely Russian Roulette game for everybody,” said Sen. Dick Kelsey, a conservative Goddard Republican.