TOPEKA — The release of new census figures for Kansas last week marked the start of the state Legislature's disputes over political redistricting.
The numbers confirmed that long-standing demographic trends are continuing. Nearly three-quarters of the state's counties lost population over the past decade, even as growth continued in the Wichita area, in most of the state's portion of the Kansas City metropolitan area, around Fort Riley and in a few western Kansas counties.
Legislative leaders already are anticipating a shift in power, especially to Johnson County, the state's most populous county, with southeast, northwest and north-central Kansas likely to lose clout. The size of the 3rd Congressional District, centering on the Kansas City area, must shrink, while the 1st District of western and central Kansas will get larger.
Democratic leaders would like to take redrawing legislative and congressional district lines out of the Legislature's hands and give it to a nonpartisan commission. But the idea is a non-starter with Republicans, who have big majorities in both chambers.
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Legislators face a year's worth of preparation before they actually start debating maps — an adjustment of the data by the Secretary of State's Office for use in legislative redistricting and hearings around the state. Redistricting bills will be considered during the 2012 session, but lawmakers already have a good idea of where the debates are likely to end up.
"I've thought all along that Johnson County would end up with another Senate seat and probably three House members," said Senate President Steve Morris, R-Hugoton. "There's no way out of it."
The census figures showed that 77 of the state's 105 counties had fewer residents in 2010 than in 2000, and 23 saw population declines of more than 10 percent. Seventy-one of Kansas' counties have lower populations than they did in 1960, and 70 of them have lower populations than they did a century ago.
Jewell County tops both lists for its population losses: Its 2010 population of 3,077 is 57 percent less than it was in 1960 and 83 percent lower than it was in 1910.
Changes in farming are a big reason for such trends in recent decades, Laszlo Kulcsar, director of the Kansas Population Center at Kansas State University, said. Agriculture has grown more productive, even as it requires fewer workers — meaning fewer agriculture jobs to keep people in rural areas.
Doug Gerber, the city manager in Goodland, in northwest Kansas, said rural communities also are fighting general societal attitudes that someone isn't truly successful without making a mark in a big city.
"For years, it's been pushed on our kids," he said. "I don't think we're teaching them very well that they can come home and be a success."
Meanwhile, it's no surprise that Johnson County's population growth has far outstripped any other county's. In 1910, Johnson County had 18,288 residents, ranking it 33rd in the state, even behind now-rural counties such as Brown, Marshall and Washington. By 1960, it was the state's third most-populous county, behind Sedgwick and Wyandotte, with 143,792 residents. The 2010 census count is 544,179, confirming its ranking as most populous.
A quick scan of census data for the state House's 125 districts shows that six of the 10 most overpopulated ones are Johnson County districts. Among the 40 Senate districts, three of the five most over-populated are southern Johnson County districts.
The Kansas Constitution has a provision requiring federal census data to be adjusted, to count students and military personnel in their "home" communities, rather than where they're residing temporarily, for the purposes of redrawing legislative districts, so the true extent of the shifts won't be known for at least several months. But there's no escaping that the Johnson County delegation, with 22 House members and seven senators, will get larger.
"It's going to be up to our rural legislators to form some effective coalitions," Gerber said.