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AP: Kansas GOP leaders open to new remapping next year

12/7/2012

TOPEKA (AP) — The conservative Republicans taking over the Kansas Senate's top two leadership positions said Thursday that they're willing to redraw the state's political boundaries again next year, even though federal judges set the existing lines only earlier this year.

TOPEKA (AP) — The conservative Republicans taking over the Kansas Senate's top two leadership positions said Thursday that they're willing to redraw the state's political boundaries again next year, even though federal judges set the existing lines only earlier this year.

Incoming Senate President Susan Wagle told The Associated Press that she is interested in redrawing legislative districts, though she wants to consult with attorneys first on whether the Kansas Constitution and past court decisions allow a quick round of political redistricting.

In a separate interview, incoming Senate Majority Leader Terry Bruce said he's open to readjusting congressional districts if the state's four U.S. House members can agree on a plan. Bruce said he's heard "an awful lot of talk" about reopening the debate on congressional redistricting.

A bitter stalemate between conservative and moderate Republicans, who previously led the Senate, prevented lawmakers from approving any redistricting legislation this year. Three federal judges then redrew political boundaries to ensure equal representation.

Rumors have circulated since the state's primary election in August — when it became clear that the GOP right was likely to control both legislative chambers next year — that conservatives wanted to reopen the debate over political redistricting. The comments from Wagle and Bruce were the first confirmation of serious interest.

Wagle, from Wichita, and Bruce, from Hutchinson, take over their new positions when lawmakers convene their 2013 session next month. Together, the president and majority leader control the flow of legislation in the Senate.

Wagle said that if it is possible to pursue redistricting next year, "Why not try?"

"Nothing should be out of the realm of fixing," she said.

But the bitterness of this year's debate is likely to leave some lawmakers wary of tackling redistricting early, particularly when legislators must close a projected budget shortfall and face other pressing issues.

"That may be the most asinine idea that's been floated in Topeka this year," said House Minority Leader Paul Davis, a Lawrence Democrat.

Before this year's elections, the Senate's moderate GOP leaders worked with Democrats on a number of issues, including redistricting. But conservatives ousted eight moderate GOP senators in the August primary, and Republicans retained their 32-8 majority in last month's general election, giving conservatives control and making it easier for conservative Republican Gov. Sam Brownback to pass his initiatives.

Asked whether Brownback is interested in revising political boundaries next year, spokeswoman Sherriene Jones-Sontag said only that he would pursue his own agenda and, "He will carefully review and consider all bills the Legislature sends to him."

Wagle said this year's debate over redistricting represented "a colossal breakdown of communication."

"I feel like the House, the Senate and the governor's office, we're working together very well," Wagle said.

The state constitution requires the Legislature to redraw its political boundaries in the second year of every decade, following the federal census. Some legislators don't think it's clear whether the language would prevent more frequent redistricting.

"I would like to hear different legal opinions about whether that's possible," Wagle said.

Some legislators also were disappointed with how the three federal judges redrew the state's four congressional districts because they expanded the short-of-population 1st District of western and central Kansas eastward to take in Manhattan and the site for a planned $1.15 billion federal biosecurity lab. Area officials and Brownback had wanted the Manhattan area to stay in the 2nd District with other eastern Kansas communities.

Congressional redistricting arose again as a potential issue for legislators this week when 1st District Rep. Tim Huelskamp, a conservative Republican, was removed from his seats on the U.S. House Budget and Agriculture committees.

Wagle, who takes over as Senate president when lawmakers open their session next month, said she's focused on legislative districts. Bruce is skeptical about tinkering with legislative districts, largely because new lawmakers were elected in them, but said new congressional districts are a possibility if the delegation can agree.

"If they could come up with something, I'd be open to looking at that," Bruce said, adding that his stance isn't a response to Huelskamp's situation.

The three federal judges who drew the current boundaries acted after the Legislature's stalemate led to a lawsuit from a Republican precinct committee member from Olathe. The judges allowed 26 other people — including Davis and other key figures in the legislative debate — to intervene.

The judges have yet to decide how much of their legal bills the state must pay. Attorneys for 15 of the 27 plaintiffs in the lawsuit had submitted bills of more than $669,000.

Davis said if legislators pursue redistricting next year, "It would land us back in court."

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