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Kansas Senate approves remap plan amid acrimony

TOPEKA (AP) -- The Kansas Senate approved a bill Tuesday for redrawing members' districts after its moderate Republican leaders agreed to rewrite parts of it to appease GOP conservatives, but the changes might not be enough to get the measure through the right-leaning House.

The acrimonious debate and the Senate's 21-19 vote on the redistricting bill highlighted the split within the chamber's GOP majority over adjusting political boundaries to account for shifts in the state's population over the past decade. The bill goes to the House, but Speaker Mike O'Neal, a Hutchinson Republican, has already declared that he doesn't like the plan for redrawing senators' districts.

Both northwest Kansas senators -- Republican Ralph Ostmeyer, Grinnell, and Democrat Allen Schmidt, Hays, voted against the plan.

Critics argued that the Senate's moderate GOP leaders were trying to draw district lines to keep themselves in power -- so they can continue to check initiatives from Gov. Sam Brownback and his fellow GOP conservatives. The powerful Kansas Chamber of Commerce, aligned with Brownback, is targeting eight Senate incumbents in Republican primaries.

"It is a purposeful division between big-government and limited-government ideologies," said Sen. Mary Pilcher-Cook, a conservative Shawnee Republican who ultimately voted against the bill.

Senate Reapportionment Committee Chairman Tim Owens, an Overland Park Republican who backed the plan, said conservatives' push to remake the Senate is "the 800-pound gorilla" shadowing the redistricting debate.

Conservatives backed an alternative plan and noted that it would have resulted in districts with smaller deviations in populations from the ideal of about 71,000. But critics said it would have adjusted the lines to help GOP conservatives pick up seats.

Owens said, "There is a lot of planning and conniving."

Legislators must also redraw the boundaries of the state's four congressional districts. Each chamber has approved a plan -- and killed the other chamber's bill. The impasse over redistricting threatens to create administrative problems for election officials and even delay the Aug. 7 primary election.

The initial Senate map would have put at least three conservative candidates outside the districts of the incumbent senators they sought to challenge. The Senate amended the plan to draw two conservatives back into the districts of their targets, with the targeted senators themselves proposing the changes.

Both of the affected challengers are House members, Greg Smith, of Overland Park, and Brenda Landwehr, of Wichita. Smith is challenging Owens; Landwehr is running against Sen. Jean Schodorf, also of Wichita.

Senate GOP leaders said they had an agreement with O'Neal that if those two changes were made, O'Neal wouldn't block the bill in the House.

Senators also included in the bill a bipartisan plan for redrawing the 125 House districts approved by state representatives in February and a proposal for adjusting the lines of the State Board of Education's 10 districts. The Senate's approval of the package -- and the House's consent -- could have then resolved multiple redistricting issues and eased tensions stalling work on tax cuts, the state budget, and other issues.

"We need to be thinking about how to finish our work and leave town," Schodorf said. Tuesday was the 80th day of the Legislature's annual session, out of 90 scheduled.

But, after briefly watching the Senate's debate, O'Neal said he didn't have an agreement with Senate leaders and their changes weren't enough. Gary Mason, a Wichita businessman, is running against Sen. Carolyn McGinn, of Sedgwick, in the GOP primary, but the Senate's redistricting plan puts Mason in a different district.

O'Neal acknowledged he told Senate leaders that he wouldn't have a problem with a Senate redistricting plan that didn't thwart any known primary challenges.

"That's not, 'The House will accept this or the House will accept that."' O'Neal told reporters. "I told the Senate leadership what my problems were, and I don't appreciate being misrepresented on the floor of the Senate."

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The plan approved by the Senate is the latest version of "Ad Astra Revised" on the Legislature's redistricting site.

Online:

Kansas Legislature's redistricting site: http://redistricting.ks.gov/