John Hanna, Associated Press
Kansas state Rep. Annie Kuether, a Topeka Democrat, consults with Dustin Hardison, policy director for the House minority leader's office, before a House redistricting committee meeting, Wednesday, June 1, 2011 at the Statehouse, in Topeka, Kan. Legislators are starting the work of redrawing legislative and congressional districts.

TOPEKA, Kan. — Kansas legislators began discussions on redrawing lines for legislative and congressional districts Wednesday, with the House speaker taking the unusual step of putting himself in charge of the politically charged task in his chamber.

The House's committee on redistricting held its first meeting, an orientation session. Its Senate counterpart canceled a meeting to avoid being at the Statehouse late into the afternoon, but two panels expect to have joint meetings throughout the summer and fall for public hearings in communities across the state.

The state redraws political boundaries once every 10 years following the federal census. Lawmakers won't actually redraw political boundaries until their 2012 session, which convenes in January. In addition to House, Senate and congressional districts, they will revise districts for the State Board of Education.

House Speaker Mike O'Neal, a Hutchinson Republican, named himself the chairman of his chamber's 17-member committee — reflecting both the task's political importance and his interest in it. O'Neal, an attorney, was chairman of the House's redistricting committee in 2002 under another speaker and was heavily involved in redrawing lines in 1992.

"There are really only a couple of us who've had experience doing this," O'Neal said. "Given that I was going to have a substantial interest in it and probably would be working on it anyway, I just decided that we'd run it out of our office."

House Minority Leader Paul Davis, a Lawrence Democrat, also put himself on the committee. Its partisan split — 17 Republicans and six Democrats — reflects the House's overall GOP majority, 92-33.

Similarly, the Senate, where Republicans have a 32-8 majority, has a redistricting committee with 10 Republicans and three Democrats.

Republican Gov. Sam Brownback took office in January, putting the GOP in a strong position entering the redistricting debate. Democrats also faced a GOP-dominated Legislature and Republican Gov. Bill Graves in 2002, but the Republican majorities were smaller.

"I recognize that this is, inherently, a partisan process and go into that with expectations that Democrats are probably not going to get their way, but we'll try to work together with them as best we can," Davis said.

Republicans said redistricting will be fair and not overly partisan, following guidelines designed to protect communities' interests and avoid gerrymandering. A key goal under the guidelines is to avoid putting two incumbents in a single district.

Democrats remained skeptical, noting that the same guidelines proved no hindrance in 2002 when Lawrence was split between two congressional districts or Junction City was separated from neighboring Fort Riley.

"Those guidelines are worth the piece of paper they're written on," said Senate Minority Leader Anthony Hensley, a Topeka Democrat, who put himself on his chamber's committee.

But population shifts are likely to be equally as important in drawing the lines, with many rural areas losing residents while urban and suburban areas gain them.

"It doesn't look good," said Sen. Ralph Ostmeyer, a Grinnell Republican and redistricting committee member whose district already covers the state's entire northwest corner. "It's going to be real tough. I'd like to hold every district together, but I just don't see how it can happen."

Most legislators expect Johnson County, the state's most populous, to pick up seats in the Legislature. In fact, many believe the county will gain three House seats and a Senate seat.

But House Majority Leader Arlen Siegfreid, an Olathe Republican, said drawing those new districts will be complicated as lawmakers determine how much lines should cross city boundaries.

"All these things are going to be really difficult decisions, and they really are not partisan," he said.


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