Kobach asks federal court to settle Kansas redistricting issue

Saying the state has reached a constitutional crisis, Secretary of State Kris Kobach asked a federal court to draw election boundaries for state and federal offices in time for this summer’s primaries.

Kobach’s motion asks the court to appoint a three-judge panel to draw districts for Congress as well as the state Senate, House and Board of Education. He also said his office is willing to provide maps as an alternative.

Kobach stressed that he doesn’t want to be involved in the redistricting process. He wants the Legislature to handle it.

“I don’t want to go to court. I don’t want to play any role in drawing these district lines,” Kobach said. “I am simply saying please do your job. Take this out of my hands. This task really ought not to be in court.”

Kobach’s motion was filed in response to a lawsuit brought by Robyn Essex, a Republican Party precinct committee member from Olathe. One of Essex’s attorneys, Brent Haden, of Columbia, Mo., is a former chief of staff to Kansas House Speaker Mike O’Neal, a Hutchinson Republican.

Essex argued her lawsuit that the state’s existing political boundaries violate her constitutional rights because they haven’t been adjusted yet to account for shifts in the population during the last 10 years.

Kobach’s filing comes as the Legislature has become bogged down in drawing election boundaries because of a raging dispute over Senate districts and how they could decide whether moderate or conservative Republicans control the Senate after this year’s elections.

The impasse has already led the state to move back the deadline for candidates to file for office to June 11. The primaries are scheduled for Aug. 7. The state also must meet a June 23 federal deadline for mailing ballots to military personnel and overseas citizens.

The battle over redistricting has caused tempers to flare in the Legislature, most recently Tuesday afternoon when the Republican caucus erupted in anger.

Accused of playing politics with the maps, Sen. Tim Owens angrily said he was tired talking about that “garbage” and stormed out of the committee room.

“I was tired of the anger and the hate in the room,” said Owens, an Overland Park Republican. “I don’t like when I get to that point. Sometimes the best way to take care of that is to walk away.”

Meanwhile, conservatives were agitated because Senate President Steve Morris and Senate Majority Leader Jay Emler did not attend the meeting to discuss to the maps.

They demanded Morris and Emler appear before the entire Republican caucus to talk about the redistricting debate, which is gradually leaving a mess of the legislative session.

“One of the things that has bothered me over the last couple of weeks is that our Senate president and our majority leader have been absent from many of our caucuses. That doesn’t send a positive message to the caucus,” said state Sen. Julia Lynn, a conservative Republican from Olathe.

The anger that boiled over at Tuesday’s meeting was a signal that senators have become so frustrated with the impasse over drawing election districts that they are ready to give up and hope the courts are willing to do what they can’t.

But the effects of the redistricting debate are spilling over into the debate over taxes, schools and the state budget.

The debate over the drawing of election boundaries has centered on the battle for control of the state Senate, now run by moderate Republicans and seen as the last obstacle to giving a clear path to Republican Gov. Sam Brownback’s agenda.

Backed by the Kansas Chamber of Commerce, conservative Republican challengers have lined up to run against several moderate Republicans, including Sens. John Vratil of Leawood, Terrie Huntington of Fairway and Owens.

The Senate initially proposed a map that cut three conservative challengers — Greg Smith of Overland Park, Brenda Landwehr of Wichita and Wichita businessman Gary Mason — out of districts represented by moderates.

It later relented and put Smith and Landwehr back in their original districts.

However, the House found the Senate districts contemptible and passed its own plan that keeps the challengers in their districts.

But unlike the Senate, the House plan does not give Johnson County its own Senate district even if it was the fastest growing county in the state.

The Senate started work today on a new plan, but conservatives found that one equally as objectionable to the first plan the chamber considered.

The latest Senate plan moved a district from south central Kansas into Johnson County. It would put two conservative incumbent senators — Ty Masterson of Andover and Steve Abrams of Arkansas City — into the same district.

It also upsets the balance of the district represented by Sen. Mary Pilcher Cook of Shawnee. Her district would lose a large swath of the Johnson County exurbs west of Interstate 435.

Under the latest plan, Pilcher Cook’s District 10 would extend into moderate territory in Merriam and northern Overland Park where there is large cluster of Hispanics.

Pilcher Cook’s new district would go to 29 percent Democrat from 25 percent Democrat. Meanwhile, the Republican percentage would drop to 39 percent from 45 percent. Independents would increase to 31 percent from 29 percent.

Conservative senators said the latest map wasn’t any improvement over other redistricting proposals that they opposed.

However, Vratil -- the Senate vice president -- said the latest map responded to concerns about the Senate proposal straying too far away from the concept of one man, one vote with populations varying widely from district to district.

There was a sense that Tuesday’s meeting was a sign that the Republican Senate leadership might be losing control of its members.

“When the majority of the caucus no longer agrees with the leadership, mutiny is a natural result,” Masterson said after the meeting.

“Look at how many times this year a majority of the caucus was on the opposite side of the majority leader,” he said. “Within these last couple years, a majority of the caucus is not in agreement with the leader.”

Senate President Morris, a Hugoton Republican, said he didn’t think things were getting out of control Tuesday.

“Unfortunately that kind of thing happens occasionally, especially toward the ends of sessions,” Morris said.