FRANKFORT — The Kentucky House is moving ahead with plans that could change how area voters are represented in state government, but leaders in the Senate are still content to put off legislative redistricting until 2014.
Democratic House Speaker Greg Stumbo asked members to caucus based on region to come up with proposals, which he requested by Friday. Stumbo wants to go ahead with the plan and says the lingering issue could be used as leverage to sway potentially vulnerable legislators on major issues.
54th District Rep. Mike Harmon, re-elected in November to another term by voters in Boyle and Washington counties, said he helped draft a plan that would include some significant changes to area House districts. Harmon and other central Kentucky legislators gathered Thursday for a meeting organized by Lexington Rep. Ruth Ann Palumbo.
According to Harmon, the group suggested making the 54th District (now Boyle and Washington counties) inclusive of Boyle and Casey County, which had been part the 24th District along with Marion and part of Pulaski. The 55th District, which is now Mercer, Anderson and part of Spencer County, would pick up Washington and part of Jessamine, including Wilmore and some of Nicholasville.
Lincoln would remain in the 80th District with Rockcastle, but no longer include part of Pulaski, a county which Harmon said will be important for linking to the eastern part of the state. Garrard, which saw a population surge in the northern part of the county, would still be in the 36th District along with part of Madison and Jessamine counties.
Harmon said the plan is preliminary and much will likely change based on what Stumbo and others in the House leadership decide.
The boundaries drawn up during the 2012 regular session amounted to battle lines when the new legislative map was contested in court by state lawmakers unhappy with how their districts were reshaped. The process, which consumed most of legislators' time during the first part of the 60-day session, was thrown into upheaval after Franklin Circuit Court Judge Philip Shepherd struck down the plan passed by the House and Senate.
Each district must be within 5 percent above or below the ideal population size, which has been set at about 43,000. There are 100 House districts and the ideal district is based on one one-hundredth of the roughly 4.3 million total state population recorded in the 2010 census.
Shepperd ruled the map did not conform to the basic constitutional guidelines of a 5 percent variance and said it broke up too many counties.
Rep. Kim King of Harrodsburg was squarely in the middle of the redistricting fight. The failed plan pitted her against Harmon in a new district combining Boyle and Mercer counties, prompting her to join the lawsuit along with other Republican House members and Lexington Sen. Kathy Stein, a Democrat.
King said Friday she approved of the proposal to form a new 55th District. King said the pressing issues before the legislature and the likelihood partisan rancor will taint the rest of the agenda and shape the way district boundaries are drawn regardless of when it happens. She also has spoken with county clerks in her district and others who say candidates will begin filing for offices before the issue would come up in the 2014 regular session.
"Our clerks have jobs to do based on a legal redistricting plan we need to deliver to them," King said. "The census happened in 2010, so we are three years behind as it is. We need to work on it and get it done as soon as possible. The reality is that the political climate is probably never going to be any different than it is right now."
Both large and small obstacles lie ahead for any map the House approves.
Gov. Steve Beshear finds himself in the rare position of agreeing with Republican Senate leaders about the need to postpone addressing district boundaries until next year. Both have said the state can't afford to allow redistricting to distract from other major issues, especially when there won't be any elections for the House or Senate until 2014.
State and federal legislative mapping preoccupied lawmakers so thoroughly in 2012 that most other legislative business ground to a halt. With pension reform, a law aimed at reigning in so-called prescription "pill mills" and other matters looming during the 30-day, odd-year session, Sen. Tom Buford, who represents Boyle, Garrard, Jessamine and part of Fayette, said there is no need to get sidetracked.
"It would derail the session again, so I agree with many of my colleagues in the Senate, as well as with the Governor, that now is not the best time."
Buford said his district doesn't stand to change much regardless of when the process moves forward.
The Republican-led Senate holds most of the cards in the current scenario. While their counterparts in the House have started talks, Buford said he and fellow Republicans in the Senate have not and don't intend to.
The political end game for Republicans also involves how the political landscape will look in 2014. Buford said party leaders believe Democrats stand to lose considerable ground unless districts are redrawn in their favor, a process the state GOP is in no hurry to help along.
The Senate could pass a House proposal, but the proposals of both legislative bodies are typically moved through at the same time with an agreement that each will approve the other's, Harmon acknowledged a House redistricting bill has almost no chance of passing unless some kind of deal is struck soon.
Harmon also is skeptical about whether Stumbo and his Democratic cohorts will approve all of the regional recommendations, especially in solidly Republican areas.
"I have no illusions that they will accept all our ideas," Harmon said. "You understand they are the party in the majority, so they are going to have the most say in how the districts look," Harmon said.