Opinion Columns & Blogs

Redistricting key to rest of session

The hot air under the Capitol dome in Topeka has begun to cool a bit as lawmakers begin their three-week break before returning to “wrap up” the 2012 legislative session. But moderate GOP senators remain in the hot seat.

With its wide and deep policy agenda, the Legislature has left almost all important policymaking to a few days in late April and early May. Or maybe not so few, given the difficulties in tackling the budget, redistricting, school finance, tax cuts, the Kansas Public Employees Retirement System and Medicaid, among other issues.

After hanging around the Statehouse and talking with Topeka lobbyists and legislators, I found no consensus on how the final package will be wrapped – just that it will be sloppy. Moreover, there’s not even any agreement on what’s the most important remaining issue.

Among four veteran lobbyists, the first pointed to the budget, and the possibility of a huge ending balance, if revenues continue to rise and tax-cut plans fall apart. The second argued that addressing health care spending, and especially Medicaid, was the premier issue. The next concluded that proposed tax cuts constituted the most important policy, given the possibility of blowing a $3 billion hole in the state budget over the next few years.

The final lobbyist pointed to redistricting as the key issue – and the one that might drive the resolution of all the others.

So what will the endgame look like? Some issues, such as school finance and maybe KPERS reform, likely will remain unsettled, kicked down the road to the next session. Medicaid changes lie largely in Gov. Sam Brownback’s hands, although various groups, especially those representing the developmentally disabled, are lobbying hard against the governor’s movement toward privatization.

The crucial battles will come on tax cuts and state Senate redistricting.

These boil down to whether moderate Republicans in the Senate – many facing conservative opponents who enjoy Brownback’s tacit blessing – can hold together on redrawing districts and producing a tax plan that does not threaten to bankrupt the state.

In the end, the redistricting struggle may well determine how substantive policies, and especially tax cuts, come out.

The two leading Senate maps are one drawn by conservative Steve Abrams, R-Arkansas City, and one by the Senate redistricting committee, chaired by moderate Tim Owens, R-Overland Park. Abrams’ plan aggressively uses Kansas’ Republican registration advantage to attack many of the remaining eight Democrats in the Senate, while also placing several moderate GOP incumbents at risk. Owens’ map effectively does the reverse.

With the Abrams map attracting 19 supporters, the governor has tremendous leverage, in that a couple of new districts could be drawn to lure the two necessary votes. If that’s the case, Brownback might not even want the Legislature to pass tax legislation in this session, preferring to wait for a new, far more conservative Senate in 2013.

But if moderate Republicans don’t fold, and continue their tenuous alliance with Democrats, the fate of the Senate map may well end up in the courts, which would draw a less political set of districts.

The stakes of this redistricting could not be higher, both in the 2012 elections and for Kansas policymaking in the foreseeable future.