Legislators have no room to complain

6/13/2012

Any member of the Legislature who criticized the redistricting plans set by a federal court panel last week should be ashamed.

The three federal judges were forced to provide redistricting plans for the U.S. House, state Senate, state House and state Board of Education because the legislators themselves failed to do one of their most important tasks.

Unfortunately, Reno County is home to three representatives who took shots at the three federal judges who accomplished in a few days what the Legislature couldn't do during the entire session.

The worst comment came from Rep. Joe Seiwert, R-Pretty Prairie.

"I think it's totally ridiculous. Total disrespect for the system," he said.

No, the disrespect for the system -- and for the people of Kansas -- came from he and his fellow legislators.

They failed -- utterly -- at their constitutional duty. The districts must be redrawn every 10 years to account for changes in population. The duty has long been established.

The failure demonstrated the dysfunction that all-too-often defines the Legislature's attempts to do its work. Congress has nothing on the Kansas Legislature.

Perhaps the most surprising comments came from Rep. Mike O'Neal, R-Hutchinson. As speaker of the House, he named himself as chair of the House's redistricting committee. He was arguably the single most responsible person for the Legislature's breakdown.

"You couldn't have been more disruptive if you tried," O'Neal said. "Some of these boundary lines look like they had to go out of their way to put two incumbents in the same district."

Talk about chutzpah. He would have been better off thanking the judges for their outstanding work and fading quietly away toward retirement.

This is the same guy who tried to keep Riley County out of the 1st Congressional District first by sneaking along the northern border of the state and snatching part of Wyandotte County from the Third District. When that didn't work, he tried different plans, those including parts of Topeka or parts of Lawrence.

Some of those boundary lines looked like they had to go out of their way to keep Riley out of the 1st -- and to weaken whatever small clout Democrats have in the state.

Of course, O'Neal wasn't alone with those bizarre plans. Senate President Steve Morris, R-Hugoton, and Gov. Sam Brownback had agreed. They were concerned about an alleged feud between current 1st District Rep. Tim Huelskamp, R-Kan., and U.S. House Speaker John Boehner, R-Ohio, and the effect it might have on funding for the National Bio and Agro-Defense Facility in Manhattan.

The Kansas folks should have been more concerned with doing right by Kansans, not in sucking up to the speaker.

Riley County belongs in the 1st and the judges rightfully put it there.

Then there was Rep. Jan Pauls, D-Hutchinson, who said the maps were "crazy."

No, the maps that were crazy were the ones the Legislature tried to approve, especially for the U.S. House.

The judges, unlike the Legislature, were not bound by rules requiring them to protect incumbents, nor were they caught up in the moderate vs. conservative battles that plagued the Legislature all year.

"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."

Perhaps the Reno County legislators can learn a lesson from Rep. Bill Otto, R-LeRoy. Even though Otto has done a few things his constituents should be embarrassed by, he was right in his observation about the new maps, the House version of which put him in the same district as an incumbent from Emporia.

"I'm not terribly pleased with the map, but I'm not mad at the court," Otto said. "The court did the proper thing. They drew maps reasonably."

Sen. Pete Brungardt, R-Salina, didn't exactly praise the court, and might be forgiven for recognizing the blunt message the court sent with its comment about blatant gerrymandering. After all, he's only weeks past a brutal session that no doubt will require months for full recovery.

"You can't say it isn't a good map, but it will definitely change the landscape," Brungardt said. You wonder if there wasn't a message from the courts."

For the benefit of Brungardt and his fellow legislators, the judges actually their message clear, first with their comments about blatant gerrymandering and later with this:

"The Court recognizes that ... it is pushing a re-set button. 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."

At the end of all this, there might be some hope for the state.

The court's maps left 25 state House districts with no incumbents, 21 with two incumbents and two with three incumbents. In the Senate, there are four districts with no incumbents and four with two incumbents.

The final tally will be different as some legislators, such as Pauls, scrambled to move back to their old districts by the filing deadline, it is likely there will be a batch of new members in both the House and Senate. They will enter office unencumbered by the bitterness of the last couple of sessions. Even some new moderate names are emerging on the Republican side. If they are successful, perhaps they can provide the appropriate counterbalance to the slash-and-burn policies that will no doubt be required by the massive tax cut the Legislature and governor approved this year.

And, as we move toward another round of redistricting 10 short years from now, perhaps they will recognize the folly of trying to do it themselves.

If they are smart, they will reach impasse over redistricting during the 2021 legislative session and let the federal judges do their work again, but this time, a full year in advance of the filing deadline.

Bruce Buchanan is president of Hutchinson-based Harris Enterprises, the parent company of The Hays Daily News.

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