Redistricting reform a non-starter

Fatally flawed plans to redraw state House and Senate districts poisoned the atmosphere at the outset of this year's General Assembly. And with less than a dozen legislative days left before lawmakers have to adjourn and go home, the air in the Capitol still hasn't fully cleared.

As a result, the 2012 session may set a new standard for unproductive mediocrity for a General Assembly that isn't all that productive at solving Kentucky's myriad problems in the best of years.

Reasonable people looking at the wreckage caused by the partisan, and personal, politics in play in the production of the redistricting plans thrown out by the state Supreme Court must ask if there's a better way to perform this decennial task — a way that doesn't generate anger and bitterness and lead immediately to the court challenge that put this session on hold for so long.

The answer, of course, is yes.

Indeed, in the wake of this year's redistricting disaster, a few reasonable members of the General Assembly have introduced a handful of bills that would put Kentucky in the company of states where independent nonpartisan panels make at least the initial decisions on legislative and congressional redistricting.

These bills vary in approach. Some propose making this change by constitutional amendment; others would do it statutorily. Some would limit lawmakers' involvement in the process to an up or down vote, with no amendments, on the independent panel's plan; others would allow more leeway for the General Assembly to make changes in the panel's proposal.

But all of them share the goal of sheltering redistricting from the partisan politics, personal animosities and protection of incumbent members of the majority party that permeate the process in both houses of the General Assembly now.

These bills share one other trait as well. None of them appear to be going anywhere in this legislative session. The only redistricting measure showing any signs of life is a proposed constitutional amendment that would make a bad situation worse.

Admittedly, Senate Bill 18, which was approved by the Senate 27-11 on Thursday, would give lawmakers some needed flexibility in splitting counties to make districts as nearly equal in population as possible. But in doing so, it would also bestow a constitutional seal of approval on the most egregious examples of gerrymandering in the plans tossed out by the Supreme Court.

Want to pair non-contiguous counties in a single district by connecting them with a narrow strip of land not much wider than a road right-of-way running through the counties separating them, as House Democrats did to the detriment of House Republicans? SB 18 would make that a constitutional right.

Want to kick Lexington Democratic Sen. Kathy Stein, a thorn in the side of Republican Senate President David Williams, out of office for at least a couple of years by switching district numbers, thus barring her from running for re-election this year, as Senate Republicans did? That, too, would be a constitutional right under SB 18.

Playing fast and loose with the existing constitutional provision on creating districts from contiguous counties and Senate Republicans' vendetta against Stein were not the reasons the Supreme Court tossed the redistricting plan approved by the General Assembly. The court ruled as it did because both the House and Senate plans split more counties than necessary under the state constitution's current provisions and exceeded the acceptable population variance between districts under federal guidelines.

But leave it to the General Assembly, and Senate Republicans in particular, to respond to such a ruling not only by addressing the specific issues of the court ruling but also by giving their worst sins constitutional legitimacy.

There is a better way to deal with redistricting, a way that takes partisan, personal politics out of the equation. But it's not getting a hearing in this General Assembly session.