March 10, 2011 in Idaho

Census brings Idaho political power shift

By The Spokesman-Review
 

BOISE - Just three of Idaho’s 44 counties - Kootenai, Canyon and Ada - accounted for nearly two-thirds of the state’s population growth in the past decade, and that has big implications for Idaho politics.

North Idaho isn’t likely to lose a legislative district, but district lines will move around to reflect where the growth is - and it’s in the suburbs. That’s true in southern Idaho’s Canyon and Ada counties, as well, which are likely to gain at least one if not two legislative districts.

The likely loser: North-central Idaho, which is largely rural.

Rural interests long have dominated Idaho’s state Legislature, despite predictions at Census time every 10 years that the increasing population shift to urban areas would change that, perhaps lessening the Republican Party’s supermajority hold on legislative seats. But Boise State University political scientist Gary Moncrief said, “Most of this isn’t really urban, it’s suburban areas. And suburban areas tend to be pretty much conservative areas.”

In North Idaho, the biggest growth has come in legislative District 5, in the Post Falls area, and District 3, in the sprawling Hayden area north of Coeur d’Alene. That district, which is represented by tax-protesting Rep. Phil Hart, R-Athol, already is very conservative.

Meanwhile, District 2, which takes in all of Shoshone and Benewah counties, half of Bonner and a slice of Kootenai County that’s part of the Coeur d’Alene Indian Reservation, is now the second-least populated district in the state, with just 35,917 residents. Under the new census, each legislative district in Idaho will have to come as close as possible to 44,788 residents.

That means the oddly-shaped District 2 will have to change. “I call it the C-clamp district,” Moncrief said. “It kind of skirts all the way around, clamps down on districts 3, 4 and 5.” Said Moncrief, “That C-clamp district is going to have to get even weirder.”

A bipartisan commission will be appointed this spring to draw Idaho’s new district lines, and Moncrief said it’ll have a tough task and whatever result comes out likely will face a court challenge.

“Redistricting in Idaho is just hard to do, because the population is not evenly distributed and the geography of the state makes it hard to create districts that are really communities of interest in many places,” he said. “Because of the way the state is shaped, the mountains and geography, it’s just really hard not to wind up with a very strange couple of districts in terms of the way they look.”

North Idaho’s current District 2 is one example of that, as is eastern Idaho’s District 31, which sprawls across five counties. But with Idaho’s varying population, Moncrief said, “Those rural districts are going to get even bigger.”

Eight Idaho counties actually lost population in the past decade - including Shoshone County, which had the biggest loss at 1,006 fewer residents.

Idaho has only two congressional districts, but the census showed the line between the two will have to move: District 1, which includes North Idaho, has 116,278 more people than District 2. For decades, the line between the two has zigzagged through the city of Boise, splitting the state’s largest city between the two districts, but Moncrief said growth to the west of Boise likely will mean the line will have to move past the city limits - leaving the entire city in District 2.

Because the city of Boise is more Democratic than the rest of the state, he said, “I think that’s actually beneficial to the Democrats,” as far as their chances of winning the 2nd District. But, he said, “Either district is still hard for them to win.”

Overall, Moncrief said the shift to more of a suburban population may not change Idaho politics much, because the suburbs are conservative, as is the state’s power structure now. But, he said, the nature of the issues could change. He noted that today, the Idaho House easily passed an expansion of Idaho’s right-to-farm law. “If you’ve got more and more suburban areas getting representation, is that the kind of bill that’s going to go very far in the Legislature?” he asked. “The nature of the issues may change over time.”


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