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 Sep 22 - 28, 2011 
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Ortiz y Pino

Cities Should Gain Weight

By Jerry Ortiz y Pino

Every 10 years the U.S. Census Bureau counts our heads. By the following year, that head count is broken down by voting precinct to be used by the 50 state legislatures. All 50 shoulder that curious, constitutionally mandated responsibility of redrawing electoral districts to make sure they are as close to the “one person, one vote” ideal as possible.

That process is happening in New Mexico right now. In the special legislative session, lawmakers are changing boundaries for our three U.S. Congressional districts; our 42 Senate districts; the 70 House of Representative districts; the five Public Regulation Commission districts; and the 10 Public Education Commission districts.

To listen to Gov. Susana Martinez, this task is so easy it’s something that should have been polished off in a couple of days.

If only.

Old-timers say computers have helped simplify the mechanics of redrawing the lines greatly. But no technology yet devised has simplified the psychology of redistricting.

Take 112 personalities, lock them in the Roundhouse, apply heat and pressure and make the political stakes as high as you can. Then stand back and try not to get in the way of incoming shrapnel.

To listen to Gov. Susana Martinez, this task is so easy it’s something that should have been polished off in a couple of days.

Beneath the partisan facade (Democrats versus Republicans) of the struggle for power in Santa Fe, there is another layer to this process. Every census shows a deeper, more crucial shift than merely changing party labels: There’s an ever-increasing percentage of New Mexicans who reside in cities, not farms or ranches, not even small towns.

This ought to have pushed us away from rural dominance of the Legislature. A fairer slice of the pie should be handed to lawmakers representing cities. Yet the pace of that change has been snail-like over the past decades. Maybe fewer than 3 percent of New Mexicans now live on farms or ranches, but that portion of the state still wields a disproportionate amount of influence due to bad redistricting.

Here’s an example: When the boundaries were last drawn in 2001, the Senate managed to come up with a plan for itself that then-Gov. Gary Johnson was willing to sign. It didn’t wind up in court (as the other plans did) because the senators of the time agreed to cooperate in saving all 42 incumbents’ political lives.

Many of the “new” districts were stretched oddly across vast swaths of the state in multicounty bands. All the rural districts were constructed so as to barely meet the minimum allowable population and all the urban districts pushed the maximums. That postponed for another 10 years a reduction in the number of rural legislators. And that means this year, the Senate’s playing catchup on 20 years of population shifts.

This year, the Senate’s playing catchup on 20 years of population shifts.

Now that decision can’t be avoided. The accumulated, two-decade population inequity has to be addressed. Rio Rancho, with 87,521 people, has not a single senator living within its boundaries. Instead, it is partitioned up among four Senate districts centered elsewhere so that its interests are diluted, essentially under-representing those thousands of people.

Meanwhile, Roswell, which is a little more than half Rio Rancho’s size, has two senators living in its limits and two others whose districts extend tendrils into Roswell’s outlying suburbs. Essentially, Roswell carries double the clout in the legislative halls as Rio Rancho.

Worse, it could be argued, the population of Roswell is itself chopped-up and mixed-in with four rural surrounding districts. It subsidizes the farmers and ranchers who aren’t very numerous but use the city-dweller numbers to add weight to their influence. Four rural Senate districts benefit from the census count in Roswell, and it isn’t clear that Roswell as an urban center is getting any benefit from this arrangement, which definitely helps the countryside surrounding it.

Only five parts of New Mexico had Senate districts that grew at a rate higher than the statewide 13 percent reflected in the Census count: Rio Rancho, Albuquerque (but only west of the river), Las Cruces and Hobbs (where the oil boom, new race track and nuclear materials recycling plants nearby have spurred a jump in numbers). All the rest of the state either actually lost population (as a dozen rural counties did) or grew much more slowly. Only Rio Rancho and Albuquerque’s Westside grew enough to justify adding legislative seats for them.

Here’s an easy way to tell how the redistricting process is going: If Rio Rancho has picked up a new Senate seat and two new House seats and the Westside of Albuquerque has similarly increased its representation, then it’s good.

But if that hasn’t happened, no matter how happy each of the political parties is with the results, then we’re watching more feet-dragging and a flawed effort.

Jerry Ortiz y Pino is a retired social worker, community activist and college instructor. He is in his second term as the Democratic state senator for District 12 in the New Mexico Legislature. Email jerry@alibi.com

The opinions expressed are solely those of the author.
 
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