Battles over turf

It shouldn't have to be this difficult. Yet the Kansas Legislature is in its veto session and its mandate to redistrict has not been met.

Every 10 years since the country was founded, political districts change boundaries to reflect population patterns. The process should be mostly mathematical, with a smattering of philosophical guidelines such as keeping communities of interest intact and not diluting the vote of minorities. In the Sunflower State, the established pattern of declining population out west and increasing population in the cities to the east should make the process even easier. As long as the number of political districts does not change, the boundaries should get bigger on this side of the state and smaller on the other.

Nothing can be that simple, however. Even with the relatively token presence of Democrats involved.

On the national level, Kansas' four congressional seats all are occupied by Republicans. There are two competing plans, one from the Republican-led Senate and one from the Republican-led House. Both chambers passed their own maps and rejected the other. Two sticking points have emerged, both involving the First District.

Already known as the Big First, the question is how much bigger to make it and which population centers to pick up. Logic by itself would have brought Manhattan into the First, but logic goes out the window when funding for the planned National Bio and Agro-Defense Facility there is perceived as threatened under tea partier Rep. Tim Huelskamp. Instead, the First either will pick up parts of Topeka or Kansas City. Neither urban center appears to have much commonality with rural Kansas.

Complicating the congressional maps are warnings from Kansas Attorney General Derek Schmidt to expensive lawsuits emanating when legislators aren't in agreement. The state has to pick up the legal fees of anyone who sues. That's probably why the Senate has included $500,000 in contingent attorney fees in its version.

And Secretary of State Kris Kobach has "sounded the alarm" about meeting deadlines to hold the scheduled Aug. 7 primary election. Legislators already have begun talk about postponing that election.

Lawmakers also have discussed a constitutional amendment to create an independent, five-member commission to handle redistricting in the future. That is an idea worth pursuing.

Redistricting the state-level districts is proving an overly political process as well. The Senate has proposed enlarging Sen. Ralph Ostmeyer's 40th District to stretch from Colorado to more than halfway across Kansas. As unfortunate as that would be, it does follow the logic of expanding districts to account for less population.

Unfortunately it swallows up Ellis County, which has not been losing population. It also eliminates the 36th District, currently held by Sen. Allen Schmidt, in the process. Sen. Tim Owens, chairman of the Senate Reapportionment Committee, claimed the only alternative would have been to merge a district in south-central Kansas that would have pitted two Republican incumbents in the August primary. That does not follow the logic outlined above. Districts on the eastern side of the state should be shrinking in size, not increasing in number.

Nonetheless, votes will be taken in Topeka beginning next week. We're fearful of the end result. We knew western Kansas was going to have diluted power as a result of losing population. But having politics carry arguments instead of logic could result in less representation overall. That doesn't bode well for those of us living so far west of the capital.

Editorial by Patrick Lowry

plowry@dailynews.net