Conflict emerges prior to launch of August public hearings on redistricting in Kansas

GOP compresses 14 town halls into five days, instead of four months

by Tim Carpenter, Kansas Reflector

Topeka — Republican-led committees of the Kansas Legislature plan to pack into five days the 14 town hall meetings offering opportunities for the public to share ideas on redrawing boundaries of congressional, legislative and state education board districts during the 2022 session.

House and Senate redistricting committee members intend to start the roadshow at 9 a.m. Aug. 9 in Manhattan at the Kansas State University student union and conclude at 1:30 p.m. Aug. 13 at the School of Business at the University of Kansas in Lawrence. In between, there would be stops in Hays, Salina, Colby, Dodge City, Chanute, Garden City, Hutchinson, Wichita, Overland Park, Pittsburg, Leavenworth and Kansas City.

In 2011, the bipartisan joint House and Senate committees on redistricting spread the same number of town halls in the same cities across July, August, September and October.

The full House and Senate and Republican Gov. Sam Brownback failed to agree on new political maps in 2012, compelling a panel of federal judges to set boundaries still in place. Resetting districts for the upcoming decade must be based on U.S. Census population reports. The majority party in the Capitol typically holds sway over a process that could be more volatile in 2022 than in 2012, because Kansas has a Democratic governor with Laura Kelly as opposed to Brownback the Republican.

Thoughtful or hasty?

On Sunday, Senate Vice President Rick Wilborn, R-McPherson, and Rep. Chris Croft, R-Overland Park, issued a statement defending their listening-tour strategy. These lawmakers, who chair the Senate and House redistricting committees, said the Kansas Legislative Research Department “deserved accolades” for putting the tour schedule together.

They said the goal was to provide a chance for Kansans in every corner of the state to provide input into the redistricting process. They also denounced skepticism expressed by Democrats and organizations about the schedule.

“It is no surprise, but still disappointing, that the Democrats were ready with press releases to politicize the process,” said Sen. Wilborn and Rep. Croft. “By attacking what amounts to a calendar, Kansas Democrats demonstrate they would have leveled criticism regardless of the schedule and are more concerned with reciting left-wing talking points from Washington than hearing from hard-working Kansans.”

Senate Minority Leader Dinah Sykes, D-Lenexa, said GOP members of the redistricting committees made the schedule public at 6 p.m. Friday without consulting or informing Democrats in advance.

“Kansas voters deserve a fair, transparent redistricting process with ample opportunity for citizen participation,” said Sen. Sykes, ranking Democrat on the Senate’s redistricting panel. “Republicans are treating redistricting the same way they treat the legislative process: hastily, sloppily and with as little opportunity for deliberation and public input as possible. That’s a feature, to them, not a bug.”

She said Kansans deserved more respect from Republican leadership than a “perfunctory notice about this critical process.”

Ten of the 14 listening tour sessions on the August schedule are during the 8 a.m. to 5 p.m. time frame when many people would be at work. Only meetings in Hays, Dodge City, Chanute and Kansas City were set in the evening hours. Each session was designed to last no more than one hour and 15 minutes.

LWV not impressed

Martha Pint, co-president of the League of Women Voters of Kansas, said the state’s redistricting committees could be faulted for issuing the tour schedule on short notice and by boxing the process into a single week.

The listening tour shouldn’t be conducted prior to the Census Bureau’s release Aug. 16 of detailed population counts necessary to draw new districts, she said.

In 2011, the Legislature conducted only two redistricting hearings before the complete set of population figures was in hand.

“The League is committed to ensuring that district maps at all levels are drawn fairly and accurately, with the concerns of all Kansans considered and equitably represented,” Pint said. “Rushing through this preliminary process just days before receiving Census data and without adopting unbiased redistricting guidelines guarantees that the public’s testimony can be easily ignored by the committees.”

She said redistricting committees in Kansas traditionally adopted “Guidelines and Criteria” for legislative and congressional districts. While non-binding, the guidelines and criteria gave legislators and other Kansans a method of evaluating and comparing the merits of competing proposals for maps of Kansas House, Kansas Senate, U.S. House and state Board of Education districts.

“Without guidelines,” Pint said, “Kansans’ testimony and information provided to the committees during the hearings will lack essential framework.”

Michael Poppa, executive director of the Mainstream Coalition, said the abrupt hearing process would raise the prospect that what ought to be a nonpartisan process would be distorted into a “partisan tool used by the majority party of the Kansas Legislature to maintain and increase power.”

The Republican Party in Kansas is hatching a “devious scheme” to gerrymander Kansas congressional districts, said Vicki Hiatt, chairwoman of the Kansas Democratic Party.

GOP lawmakers in 2020 and 2021 expressed interest in shifting the four congressional district boundaries in Kansas to drain support for U.S. Rep. Sharice Davids, a Democrat serving the 3rd District in Wyandotte and Johnson counties. She won re-election in 2020 by nearly 40,000 votes, which prompted discussion of moving Democrat-heavy areas into the 2nd District held by Republican U.S. Rep. Jake LaTurner, who ousted GOP incumbent Steve Watkins to win election in 2020.

“Kansans deserve to elect the leaders who best represent their interest, not the other way around,” Hiatt said. “Major changes in the current makeup of the Kansas congressional districts will disproportionately impact minority communities that are already struggling for representation.”

During an interview on MSNBC in June, Rep. Davids said the Kansas GOP’s goal of redrawing the 3rd District was insulting to voters because the Republican Party was essentially admitting, “If you can’t beat them, cheat them.”

Kansas Reflector stories, kansasreflector.com, may be republished online or in print under Creative Commons license CC BY-NC-ND 4.0.
See more at https://kansasreflector.com/2021/08/01/conflict-emerges-prior-to-launch-of-august-public-hearings-on-redistricting-in-kansas/.

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