TOPEKA — Kansas legislators worked Thursday on new proposals for redrawing the state’s political boundaries, but a federal court later this month could take redistricting out of their hands.
Majority Republicans in the Senate were trying to end a bitter internal feud over the chamber’s 40 districts, driven by a coming struggle between GOP conservatives and moderates in this year’s Republican primaries. The Senate’s moderate GOP leaders hope to fend off conservative challenges and retain power, allowing them to remain as a check on conservative Republican Gov. Sam Brownback’s agenda.
In the House, a new plan emerged for adjusting the lines of the state’s four congressional districts. The Redistricting Committee approved the proposal, 9-7, sending it to the chamber for debate set for Friday.
The new congressional plan immediately drew criticism over how it split the city of Lawrence between an eastern Kansas district and another largely rural district that already covers western and central Kansas. Also, supporters acknowledged that they’re pursuing the plan to have another alternative to present in federal court rather than out of any hope that it can pass the Senate.
Meanwhile, Chief U.S. District Judge Kathryn Vratil scheduled a May 29 hearing in federal court in a lawsuit filed earlier this month by Robyn Renee Essex, a Republican precinct committee member from Olathe, over the Legislature’s failure so far to approve any redistricting plans. Vratil also gave the parties until May 29 to submit proposed maps to the court.
The impasse over the Senate map has prevented any redistricting measure from clearing the Legislature, and Thursday was the 96th day of its annual session, six more than lawmakers had scheduled. Some lawmakers have suggested abandoning redistricting work to the courts, but Brownback said Thursday that he wants them to continue.
Legislators must redraw congressional, state House, state Senate and State Board of Education districts to account for changes in population over the past decade. The Board of Education map depends on the Senate map because each of the 10 board districts by law must combine four Senate districts.
“They could do a House map. They could do a congressional map,” Brownback said. “If you can’t get agreement on a Senate map, then have the court handle just the Senate and State Board of Education map. But I’d like to see them do what they can do.”
The defendant in the federal lawsuit is Secretary of State Kris Kobach, the state’s chief elections officer, and he filed a request Wednesday to have a panel of three judges appointed to impose new political boundaries for legislators. Kobach, a conservative Republican, said he stands ready to submit proposals to the judges.
The most contentious dispute has been over redrawing state Senate districts. Conservatives believe proposals backed by moderate Republicans and most Democrats are designed to thwart conservative primary challengers. Many legislators view alternatives from conservatives as designed to help conservatives oust the Senate’s current leaders – with Brownback’s blessing, though he has said he isn’t involved in primary races.
Yet members of both GOP factions and Senate Minority Leader Anthony Hensley, a Topeka Democrat, were in talks on a possible compromise.
“It’s still moving forward,” said Sen. Steve Abrams, an Arkansas City Republican who has drawn multiple proposals for fellow conservatives.
Senate Reapportionment Committee Chairman Tim Owens, a moderate Overland Park Republican, responded, “That’s debatable.”
The latest congressional proposal from the House creates slightly more Republican districts for three of the four members of the state’s all-GOP delegation in the U.S. House.
The map splits Lawrence, home to the University of Kansas, between the 2nd District of eastern Kansas and the 1st District of western and central Kansas, guaranteeing that its Democratic votes will be swamped by GOP votes in communities 400 miles or more away. The city is now split between the 2nd and the 3rd District, which is centered on the Kansas City metropolitan area.