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Session driven by redistricting, partisanship

5/29/2012

Legislators feud over redistricting

By MIKE CORN

mcorn@dailynews.net

The task of redistricting, bogged down by political infighting, tainted the entire legislative process in what at least one legislator said was a session with too much on its plate.

While redistricting put a damper on most everything, legislators agree, it was the one issue that didn't get completed and is now in the hands of a panel of three federal judges.

While the list of people joining the federal redistricting lawsuit grows, the only person west of U.S. Highway 81 directly involved in the case is House Speaker Mike O'Neal, R-Hutchinson.

"It's just unfortunate," Sen. Ralph Ostmeyer, R-Grinnell, said of the Legislature's inability to pass a redistricting plan.

Sen. Allen Schmidt, D-Hays, wasn't pleased with how long the session lasted, which he blamed on the "partisanship" displayed during the session.

The long session, he said, forced legislators to rush out to weddings and graduations, some returning to the session and others not.

"That's the way the last week and a half have been," he said.

"One for the record books," Rep. Don Hineman, R-Dighton, said of the session. "It all started when redistricting became so political."

That partisan bickering spread to everything else brought before legislators, he said.

"I was disappointed," Rep. Eber Phelps, D-Hays, said. "I thought it was mismanaged. We went on first adjournment ... without any of the major issues resolved."

In the end, the legislators were in session 99 days -- nine days beyond what was scheduled.

"I think that was a waste of time," Phelps said of spending so much time without accomplishing any of the big-ticket items. "We spent a lot of time on non-issues."

Legislators agree there were accomplishments, such as water legislation that sailed through both chambers without a dissenting vote.

Yet there's a general lack of enthusiasm on other issues, including the budget and the fix to the state retirement program.

Legislation changing the state's tax code is being greeted with skepticism and outright concern.

For Ostmeyer, redistricting was all-consuming, given he was a member of the committee charged with the task. As it turns out, he had little input, instead railing against many of the maps put forward by the Senate.

"It's not about Ralph Ostmeyer," he said of protecting his interests.

Instead, he wanted a district that made sense and didn't require hours of driving just to represent the area.

'I'm going to run this term and that's it," he said. "I shouldn't gripe. I sit right in the center of it."

But, he said, the designs thrown out would make it difficult for people along the borders to run.

"I think we ought to make a district that's reasonably accessible," he said.

Like Ostmeyer, Schmidt struggled with redistricting, primarily because the first map out of the gate sought to collapse his 36th District.

"My focus was to save the 36th District," he said, abhorring the self-interest groups pushing specific maps.

As a freshman senator, it was eye opening.

"If I can say anything about what I experienced, it was partisanship to the max," he said.

The tax bill worries Hineman, and he plans to spend the summer researching the issue and what it will mean.

He said estimates vary, but predictions suggest the state might be running a deficit by 2014.

"I voted no," he said of the tax bill.

He's in favor of economic growth, but also concerned about focusing on just two sources of revenue -- property and sales taxes -- to pay for state government.

And people in his district are telling him they don't want high property taxes.

For Phelps, the tax bill was a concern as well.

"There's going to have to be a tremendous production of jobs to make that up," he said of the money that will be lost.

Phelps couldn't resist a swipe at Gov. Sam Brownback and his staff for pushing such an aggressive agenda.

Previous governors, he said, all rose out of Kansas legislative or executive office ranks and "they know how the budget worked."

Brownback, Phelps said, has "been in Washington, D.C., for the previous 16 years."