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.”

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Flags at half-staff to honor legislator

Flags are flying at half-staff at all state buildings and facilities Wednesday in honor of State Rep. Ron Howard, a conservative Wichita Republican.

Rep. Howard, who died Tuesday, was 67. He was in office since 2019, representing District 98.

“My thoughts are with Rep. Ron Howard’s wife, Terri, and all of his friends and family during this difficult time,” Gov. Laura Kelly said. “A former Boeing worker and lawn care service owner, Rep. Howard shared a proud, hardworking background with many in his South Wichita and Haysville district. Despite facing difficult health challenges, Rep. Howard’s perseverance demonstrated his strong dedication to those he served.”

Governor says state to continue to fight against COVID-19 despite disaster declaration expiring

Kansas will continue its fight against COVID-19, according to Gov. Laura Kelly.

Although the Kansas disaster declaration was allowed to expire today by the Legislative Coordinating Council, the state will continue its effort to vaccinate people, she said.

“We are going to keep doing what we have been doing,” Gov. Kelly said Tuesday. “It just will be harder without the disaster declaration.”

The declaration allowed the state to activate some resources including the Kansas National Guard and Emergency Management Division, and they will no longer have that ability, she said. They will still fight COVID-19, it will just be a different process, more cumbersome and more expensive, and starting from scratch putting it in place, she added.

The emergency declaration would have allowed the state to continue to contract with a number of nurses who provide vaccinations, Gov. Kelly said. She added they would have to revamp and figure out a different way to do it.

Also, by ending the state disaster declaration, it complicates the state’s relationships with the local units of government and the local health departments, she said. The state will have to figure out a different way to partner with the local health departments to make sure they’re getting what they need, she added.

A lot of the local services were in partnership with the state and with the Kansas Department of Health and Environment, she said.

“We will continue to work with people and for people,” Gov. Kelly said. “It is just more complicated.”

There was no good reason other than political reasons to end this disaster declaration now, she added.

“Our intent was to ramp up our vaccination efforts in our school-age kids,” she said, making sure they had their vaccinations before schools reopened in August. “That’s something that we’ll do, but the state will have to pay for it and will have to put in place a new structure.”

The governor had submitted a detailed plan to the Legislative Coordinating Council to extend the disaster declaration (see

Wyandotte County extended its own local state of emergency for 90 days by a unanimous vote of the Unified Government Commission on June 10. This action will allow the local government to receive federal funding for the vaccination sites and other efforts to fight COVID-19, according to local officials.

The state was receiving federal funding for vaccination clinics and also for other programs, such as extra assistance for those on food stamps.

Gov. Kelly, state and local health officials saved countless numbers of lives during the 15 months the disaster declaration was in place in Kansas.

On Tuesday, the governor credited local public health departments with being remarkably responsive, innovative and absolutely passionate about the future.

Tuesday morning, the Legislative Coordinating Council let the disaster declaration expire by canceling the meeting where it was scheduled to be discussed. The declaration expires today. Senate President Ty Masterson released a statement, with Senate Vice President Rick Wilborn and Majority Larry Alley:

“At last month’s LCC meeting, a majority of legislative leaders made it clear that June 15th was likely to be the end of the state of emergency – that after 15 months, it is time for Kansas to return to normal. As such, the LCC recommended the governor develop an exit strategy to end the emergency – however, after reviewing the governor’s letter, it appears the governor opted for an extension strategy.

“The legislature and the LCC have granted the governor every extension request over the last year, but the current circumstances surrounding COVID-19 no longer necessitate a statewide disaster emergency. The governor has not provided adequate justification for the LCC to grant her request for yet another extension, and all remaining efforts related to COVID-19 can and should take place under our normal procedures. As such, the statewide disaster emergency will expire as planned.”

Kansas Democratic Party Chairwoman Vicki Hiatt stated:
“The decision by Kansas Republican leaders to end the disaster declaration is nothing more than reckless political action that risks the health of Kansas families and our small businesses. To be clear, ending the disaster declaration doesn’t end the pandemic, it only makes it more difficult for the state to administer vaccines — especially to our children who will be going back to school come August.”

Kansas House Majority Leader Dan Hawkins issued a statement, with Speaker Ron Ryckman and Speaker Pro Tem Blaine Finch, all Republicans:

“Today marks 460 days since the Governor’s declaration of a disaster related to COVID-19. It is time for the declared disaster to end and recovery to begin. We asked the Governor for a detailed plan to justify the need for a further extension and the winding down of our state’s emergency response. What we received was an acknowledgment that nearly all executive orders could end immediately, and nearly all mission assignments could be closed by today. The Governor has failed to make a case for continuing the extraordinary measures that come with a declared disaster.

“The remaining goal to make vaccines available to all Kansans who want them is one that our state can achieve without emergency measures and executive orders. There are adequate medical personnel to meet the current demand for vaccines and the regular authority available to the Governor under the laws of our state is sufficient to meet these needs.

“The emergency part of this disaster has thankfully passed. Now is the time to help Kansans recover, rally and return to normal.”