Decreasing rural populations signal larger legislative districts

By Amy R. Sisk Community News Service

HELENA – With Google Earth on their computer screens and cups of coffee on the table, a five-person commission spent five August days in the Capitol discussing, drafting and redrawing lines that would determine the makeup of Montana’s legislative districts for the next decade.

The committee’s proposal now awaits legislators’ input. It reflects a state population that increased by 10 percent between 2000 and 2010.

But not every part of Montana experienced the boom. Many rural counties’ populations declined, forcing commissioners to redraw already large districts, making them even bigger to encompass the same number of people as smaller urban districts.

“With these population shifts and the requirement that we draw districts that essentially have the same number of people, you inevitably end up with districts in eastern Montana which are very large,” said Jim Regnier, the non-partisan chair of the Districting and Apportionment Commission. “There’s really nothing we can do about that.”

Legislators have until Feb. 7 to send recommendations to the commission, which will meet one final time later that month to finalize the map and submit it to the Montana Secretary of State’s office, where it becomes law.

A smaller rural voice

The implications of larger and fewer rural districts have far-reaching consequences for the people who live there, say area lawmakers.

“Sure, it meets the one person, one vote standard,” Sen. Greg Jergeson, D-Chinook, said of the proposed map. “But a good share of a legislator’s responsibilities in my opinion, and in the experience of most legislators, is doing work for and meeting with your constituents between sessions.”

His new district would span 300 miles across the Hi-Line, and he could not run for reelection in two years because the new boundaries put his home in the same district as another senator whose term does not end until 2016.

Although Jergeson has already urged the commission to reconsider the lines around his district so he can run again, he said it’s the constituents who lose the most because they live hundreds of miles away from their elected officials.

He explained the issues affecting people in one part of the district might not have much in common with those of constituents 300 miles away. For example, people in the western part reside in natural gas country, whereas those in the eastern oil-producing areas have more in common with their neighbors to the south in Sidney, he said.

Rep. Lee Randall, R-Broadus, represents a district of 1,200 square miles in southeastern Montana. Already the largest district, it would grow even larger under the new plan. He cannot afford the same luxuries as candidates in urban areas who walk door-to-door holding conversations with constituents, and instead he uses mail and modern technology. He also attends local functions and community fairs, often his only opportunities to discuss issues with the people he represents.

In the northern part of the state, Rep. Mike Lang, R-Malta, faces similar challenges. Moreover, he said, voicing agricultural views and concerns in the Legislature will become even more important. “We have to remind people that agriculture is the number one industry in Montana, and we feed the world with agriculture.”

Mapping process reflects migration trends

Following the release of census data every 10 years, a five-person commission made up of an independent, two Republicans and two Democrats redraws the state’s legislative boundaries.

Montana’s population at the time of the 2010 census had increased during the previous decade to 989,400. The commission used that number to calculate the populations of the state’s 100 House districts, determining each must contain as close to 9,894 people as possible.

The commission traveled the state during 2012 to hear from the public. People in rural areas wanted to remain in districts with others in their counties who share common lifestyles and interests, Regnier said.

While the commission tried to accommodate those requests, sometimes keeping a county intact could make it nearly impossible to also keep surrounding areas together in one district.

Urban areas, particularly the Flathead and Gallatin counties, saw the greatest gain with more than 15,000 new residents each. Counties in rural areas saw significant drops, with Sheridan, Daniels, McCone and Carter counties losing upwards of 17 percent of their populations.

Montana’s urbanization is nothing new and stems from several trends common to frontier states, according to the state’s Census and Economic Information Center.

For one, an aging population has led to an increase in the number of elderly people moving from rural areas into retirement homes in urban cities, CEIC Bureau Chief Mary Craigle said.

Furthermore, increases in agricultural productivity due to recent technological advances also play a role. “It’s partly because it takes fewer folks to do the same job, and there are fewer jobs available,” she said.

When people from rural areas find job opportunities in cities and leave behind their hometowns, Montana’s cities grow; alongside that the demand for services – and therefore more jobs – also increases, Craigle explained.

Can the past predict the future?

Democratic appointee Joe Lamson, who served on the previous commission 10 years ago, said he and his colleagues then faced a similar dilemma in drawing rural districts, because populations in those areas have declined for decades.

Ten years ago, commissioners voted 3-2 on party lines to send the proposed map to the Legislature for input. This time, the commission voted unanimously to move forward.

“I think that’s an indication of both sides feeling they weren’t totally wronged or totally won,” Lamson said.

As mandated by the Montana Constitution, the redistricting process will begin again in 2020. Craigle said it’s too hard to predict what the 2020 census data will reveal because a variety of factors can affect population trends, and there’s no telling what could happen in places like China and affect industries at home.

Lang knows that when the time comes again for state officials to fulfill their Constitutional duties, he hopes his constituents do one thing:

“I encourage everyone to fill out their census.”