March 1, 2011 in City

Suburan growth pushes legislative redistricting

By The Spokesman-Review
 

Spokane-area legislative boundaries could change significantly by next year to make up for population shifts from the city’s urban core to the suburbs.

While much of the attention so far on the 2010 U.S. census figures has centered on Washington gaining its 10th congressional district, the state’s Redistricting Commission may have even more work to do on redrawing legislative districts. The state isn’t adding to the 49 legislative districts it has had since 1933.

“Ten is easier than 49. There’s more areas to quibble over” in the legislative district boundaries, said Dean Foster, a member of this year’s commission as well as the 2000 panel that redrew lines after the previous census.

Since the commission set boundaries 10 years ago for nearly equal districts, urban areas around the state have either lost population or grown much slower than the surrounding suburbs. Spokane’s 3rd District, which covers downtown Spokane and many surrounding neighborhoods, is now the state’s second-smallest in terms of population; in a state where growth has averaged about 14 percent over the last decade, the 3rd has grown three-tenths of 1 percent.

Over the past decade, the 3rd has been the most reliably Democratic district in Eastern Washington, while the 4th District to the east has been one of the most solidly Republican. The 6th district, which wraps around the 3rd on the north, west and south, was once solidly Republican but in the last four years has elected legislators from both major parties.

To meet the target for an average legislative district in the coming decade, the 3rd District will have to pick up some 16,635 people from the surrounding neighborhoods in the 4th and 6th districts. Depending on which way the boundaries shift, the 3rd could become a little less solidly Democratic, or the nearby districts more strongly Republican.

“We have to grow,” Senate Majority Leader Lisa Brown, who has represented the 3rd since 1993.

The 4th and 6th districts, meanwhile, have grown slightly faster than the state, but not enough to offset the deficit in the 3rd. So as they give up more of their population to the 3rd District, they’ll in turn have to push into the 7th District to the north and northwest, and into the 9th to the south and southwest. Both of those largely rural districts have grown slightly more slowly than the state average.

“It’s inevitable that I’ll lose some of Spokane County,” said Senate Republican Floor Leader Mark Schoesler, of Ritzville, first elected in 1993. “But I think the 9th and the 7th will still have part of Spokane County.”

If the redistricting commission avoids splitting rural counties between two districts, the 9th will likely make up for any population losses from Spokane County with gains from Franklin County.

The remapping won’t be as dramatic as in 1992, Brown said, when Spokane lost a whole district, the 5th, to suburban King County because of rapid population growth in Western Washington.

Eastern Washington isn’t likely to lose a whole district this time around, in part because of rapid growth in Franklin and Benton counties, said Richard Morrill, a professor emeritus of geography at the University of Washington, much of it by people who listed themselves on the census as Hispanic or Latino.

“The interesting question is whether there will be a district with a Latino majority,” he added.

Legislative leaders will suggest new boundaries to the redistricting commission, although the board isn’t required to follow them. The bottom line of such suggestions is to protect incumbents, Morrill said.

“Not everybody can be saved,” he added. “There’s some upheaval every 10 years.”

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