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Court releases redistricting plans; bad news for two conservative Senate hopefuls

A three-judge federal court panel has redrawn the state’s legislative districts, heading off a possible battle between south-central Kansas incumbent Republican senators, but leaving two Wichita-area Senate challengers out of the districts where they planned to run.

The panel, working out of the federal court in Kansas City, released redistricting plans late Thursday night for the state’s four congressional districts, 125 state House districts, 40 Senate districts and 10 Board of Education Districts.

The judges, forced to act when the Legislature failed to pass new district maps, rejected every map that had been put before them by the House or Senate and a late-filed map that had been passed through the governor’s office.

The Legislature is required to redraw districts every 10 years to account for population shifts revealed in the Census. But a bitter fight between moderate and conservative Republicans this year doomed any map from gaining approval in both houses and the governor’s signature.

The three judges on the panel are Chief Judge Kathryn Vratil and Senior Judge John Lungstrom from the Kansas City federal district court, and Mary Beck Briscoe, chief judge of the 10th Circuit Court of Appeals.

In their 206-page opinion, the judges harshly criticized the Legislature’s performance.

“While legislators publicly demurred that they had done the best they could, the impasse resulted from a bitter ideological feud – largely over new Senate districts,” the judges wrote. “The feud primarily pitted GOP moderates against their more conservative GOP colleagues. Failing consensus, the process degenerated into blatant efforts to gerrymander various districts for ideological political advantage and to serve the political ambitions of various legislators.”

The most hotly contested map was for the Senate, where moderates hold a narrow majority and had used that to stave off some initiatives from the more conservative House and governor.

Moderates favored a district map that kept conservative GOP challengers out of the Senate districts of Sen. Jean Schodorf, R-Wichita and Carolyn McGinn, R-Sedgwick.

The map approved by the judges does that.

Rep. Brenda Landwehr, R-Wichita, winds up a few blocks outside of Schodorf’s 25th District, which sweeps from north central Wichita through Riverside and into south Wichita.

Gary Mason, a Wichita businessman wanting to challenge McGinn in the 31st Senate District north of Wichita, finds himself about a mile outside its new boundaries.

Two other area Senate conservatives got better news.

The final map approved by the Senate would have set up an incumbent-vs-incumbent matchup between Sens. Ty Masterson, R-Andover and Steve Abrams, R-Arkansas City, in order to create a new district in rapidly growing Johnson County.

In redistricting parlance, putting two incumbents in the same district is called “collapsing” the district. Case law discourages courts from doing that to avoid the appearance of making political decisions on mapping.

The three-judge panel did decide to give Johnson County a new district but chose to collapse the 21st District along the Nebraska border in northeast Kansas. Politically, it’s a wash because the incumbent senator, Mark Taddiken, R-Clifton, announced that he won’t seek re-election anyway.

On congressional districts, the judges avoided maps that split Topeka or Lawrence, as some of the Legislature’s maps would have done. Both cities are completely within the Second Congressional District.

The judges also drew Manhattan and with it, Kansas State University, into the western-Kansas-based First Congressional District.

Senate leaders had worried aloud that a dispute between House Speaker John Boehner, R- Ohio, and the First District’s representative, Tim Huelskamp, R-Fowler, could threaten future funding for the National Bio and Agro-Defense Facility, a federal anti-terrorism lab under development adjacent to the university.

Huelskamp’s office has denied that there are any disputes between the speaker and the congressman that would threaten the lab’s funding.

The Wichita-based 4th Congressional District loses Montgomery County and part of Greenwood County in eastern Kansas to the new boundaries.To the west, the district adds all of Stafford, Pratt, Barber, Comanche, Kiowa and Edwards counties, along with a sliver of southern Pawnee County.

District Three covers Kansas City suburbs, including all of Johnson and Wyandotte counties and part of Miami County.

For state House districts, the judges shot down a map called “Cottonwood 1,” which passed the House and Senate but never went to the governor as negotiations over the Senate map broke down.

The judges said they could not approve Cottonwood 1 because the deviation in population from the largest to smallest district was almost 10 percent. While that’s acceptable for maps drawn by legislators, courts are held to a more stringent standard.

For the Board of Education, the judges followed the longstanding procedure of basing the district lines on Senate districts. Four senatorial districts make up one Board of Education District, completing the 10-member state school board.

Poitical implications of the decisions on House and Board of Education Redistricting could not immediately be determined.

The judges wrote that they had tried to set politics aside and craft districts that were close to equal in population, while preserving communities of interest across the state.

“The Court recognizes that because it has tried to restore compact contiguous districts where possible, it is pushing a re-set button; its maps look different from those now in place,” the opinion said. “Some changes may not be popular and some people – perhaps many – will disagree that the Court has struck the appropriate balance. To those in that category – our fellow Kansans – we reiterate that the Court did not tread unreservedly into this political thicket. On short notice, with elections pending on the immediate horizon, we have acted solely to remedy a legislative default.”