A break from what in Topeka?

By Walt Braun

The Kansas Legislature is presently engaged in a three-week recess, although it is by no means clear what the lawmakers’ labors have brought forth that necessitates such a substantial vacation.

In fact, given the unfinished state of such central pursuits as a budget and redistricting, perhaps this period of enforced non-activity might be more accurately labeled a cooling-off period.

As near as can be determined, the only thing lawmakers actually accomplished over the first two months of what could be loosely characterized as their work has been to strip Riley and Geary County governments of the right to tax millions of dollars in private property within the two counties because the properties in question were constructed on Fort Riley.

The buildings, housing units used by soldiers who live on post, were built several years ago by Picerne Co., which collects rentals from those who live in them. Save for their location, they are functionally identical to apartments that might be built by any similar company here or in Junction City for the purpose of making a profit in the rental housing business.

The idea of exempting those properties from local property taxation is obviously wildly popular, evidenced by the fact that only two dissenting votes were cast in the entire Legislature. Yet one questions whether the lawmakers’ actions in relieving Picerne of any local property tax obligation is fair either to local governments, to those trying to complete with it in the local housing market, or to local taxpayers, whose tax bills will rise as the local tax base is narrowed.

On the effort to draw new boundaries for the state’s Congressional, Senate and House districts, the result has been, if possible, even less encouraging. When they return in mid-April, a joint redistricting committee will be starting from pretty close to scratch, the House and Senate having killed a dozen or so approaches, some good and some bad, while agreeing on none. The obstacles are almost entirely political. You could pick five people of good intention off the street, give them a half hour course on basic map-drawing, and within an additional hour they’d select an entirely acceptable Congressional map from among the dozens of rejected options.

It would be an exaggeration to call the Legislature’s work on drawing House and Senate districts even more desultory, but not much of one. Although in each case maps have taken shape, those maps badly violate the principle of one person, one vote by cutting as much as five percent fudge factors — plus or minus — into the envisioned final products. That means some districts are up to 10 percent larger or smaller than others. It is a wonder that elected public officials, with their presumed commitment to ballot box fairness, don’t summarily reject such systemic bias.

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