TOPEKA, Kan. — A redistricting bill splitting Topeka between two congressional districts cleared the Kansas House on Thursday with strong support from Republicans, but key GOP senators declared their opposition to the plan.
The House vote was 81-43, sending the bill to the Senate. But senators approved their own, bipartisan measure last month, and the two chambers must agree on adjusting the boundaries of the state's four U.S. House districts to reflect shifts in population over the past decade.
The House proposal extends the 1st District of western and central Kansas eastward, adding a finger of land that includes east — but not west — Topeka. The entire city currently is in the 2nd District of eastern Kansas, and the lines are drawn to ensure the 2nd retains the home of its congresswoman, Republican Lynn Jenkins.
The city has never been divided between two congressional districts and has been in a northeastern or eastern Kansas district since 1899. The House plan would put heavily minority, Democratic-leaning neighborhoods of Topeka into the 1st District with rural, predominantly white and heavily GOP areas 350 miles or more away. Western Topeka's largely white and GOP-leaning neighborhoods would remain in the 2nd.
"It's absurd," said Senate Reapportionment Committee Chairman Tim Owens, an Overland Park Republican. "We're not going to agree to it."
The 1st District is nearly 58,000 residents short of the ideal population of 713,280.
The Senate's bipartisan proposal extended the 1st District to take in Manhattan, home to Kansas State University, even though local officials want to remain in the 2nd. Both GOP Gov. Sam Brownback and House Speaker Mike O'Neal, a Hutchinson Republican, opposed the move, saying that keeping Manhattan in the 2nd would help protect a planned $650 million federal biosecurity lab there.
O'Neal said the House chose to split Topeka because members opposed splitting the Kansas City area between two districts, something he advocated, and dramatically redrawing lines in south-central and southeast Kansas, which O'Neal opposed. The House plan had the support of 78 of the chamber's 92 Republicans but only three of its 33 Democrats.
The House speaker said senators "probably haven't studied their options very well." O'Neal appointed himself chairman of the House Redistricting Committee and will be one of the redistricting negotiators.
"We kind of backed into this map," he said.
Senate President Steve Morris, a Hugoton Republican, said legislators can keep Manhattan in the 2nd District and avoid splitting Topeka or the Kansas City area.
As for the House plan, Morris said, "I don't see that passing."
But the Kansas Republican Party opposed the Senate plan, noting that it would leave Jenkins, the senior member of the state's all-GOP U.S. House delegation, with a slightly more Democratic district.
In contrast, the House district makes her district more Republican and also helps freshman Rep. Kevin Yoder, whose 3rd District is centered on the Kansas City area. The 1st District, represented by freshman Tim Huelskamp, would become significantly more Democratic — though it would remain the most GOP-leaning district.
Huelskamp didn't criticize the House plan, but his re-election campaign manager, Jim Pfaff, said it's critical to preserve the 1st District's "rural character."
"This has always been a rural, small-town district," Pfaff said in an email statement. "The citizens of the Big First have been served well by maintaining that character in its geographical makeup."
Kansas Legislature's redistricting site: http://redistricting.ks.gov/