TOPEKA — The conservative Republicans taking over the Kansas Senate’s top two leadership positions said Thursday that they’re willing to redraw the state’s political boundaries again next year, even though federal judges set the existing lines only earlier this year.
Incoming Senate President Susan Wagle of Wichita said that she is interested in redrawing legislative districts, though she wants to consult with attorneys first on whether the Kansas Constitution and past court decisions allow a quick round of political redistricting.
In a separate interview, incoming Senate Majority Leader Terry Bruce of Hutchinson said he’s open to readjusting congressional districts if the state’s four U.S. House members can agree on a plan. Bruce said he’s heard “an awful lot of talk” about reopening the debate on congressional redistricting.
A bitter stalemate between conservative and moderate Republicans, who previously led the Senate, prevented lawmakers from approving any redistricting legislation this year. Three federal judges then redrew political boundaries to ensure equal representation.
Rumors have circulated since the state’s primary election in August – when it became clear that the GOP right was likely to control both legislative chambers next year – that conservatives wanted to reopen the debate over political redistricting. The comments from Wagle and Bruce were the first confirmation of serious interest.
Wagle and Bruce take their new positions when lawmakers convene next month. Together, the president and majority leader control the flow of legislation in the Senate.
Wagle said that if it is possible to pursue redistricting next year, “Why not try?
“Nothing should be out of the realm of fixing,” she said.
But the bitterness of this year’s debate also is likely to leave some lawmakers wary of tackling redistricting early, particularly when legislators must close a projected budget shortfall and face other pressing issues.
“That may be the most asinine idea that’s been floated in Topeka this year,” said House Minority Leader Paul Davis, a Lawrence Democrat.
Davis said that if legislators pursue redistricting next year, “It would land us back in court.”
Before the elections, the Senate’s moderate GOP leaders worked with Democrats on a number of issues, including redistricting. But conservatives ousted eight moderate GOP senators in the August primary, and Republicans retained their 32-8 majority in the general election, giving conservatives control and making it easier for conservative Republican Gov. Sam Brownback to pass his initiatives.
Asked whether Brownback is interested in revising political boundaries next year, spokeswoman Sherriene Jones-Sontag said only that he would pursue his own agenda and, “He will carefully review and consider all bills the Legislature sends to him.”
Wagle said this year’s debate over redistricting represented “a colossal breakdown of communication.”
“I feel like the House, the Senate and the governor’s office, we’re working together very well,” Wagle said.
The state Constitution requires the Legislature to redraw its political boundaries in the second year of every decade, following the federal census. Some legislators don’t think it’s clear whether the language would prevent more frequent redistricting.
“I would like to hear different legal opinions about whether that’s possible,” Wagle said.
Some legislators also were disappointed with how the three federal judges redrew the state’s four congressional districts. The judges expanded the short-of-population 1st District of western and central Kansas eastward to take in Manhattan and the site for a planned $1.15 billion federal biosecurity lab. Area officials and Brownback had wanted the Manhattan area to stay in the 2nd District with other eastern Kansas communities.
Wagle, who takes over as Senate president when lawmakers open their session next month, said she’s focused on legislative districts. Bruce is skeptical about tinkering with legislative districts, largely because new lawmakers were elected in them, but said new congressional districts are a possibility if the delegation can agree.
“If they could come up with something, I’d be open to looking at that,” Bruce said.