By Tim Leeds
The Montana commission in charge of redrawing legislative districts has five proposals for new districts for the Havre area, and none are getting ringing endorsements from local political leaders.
The proposals would enlarge many districts in eastern Montana because of a shift in the state's population from the east to the west. Area politicians say some of the proposed districts may be too large for legislators to represent effectively. They also say some of the boundaries would split communities in ways residents might oppose.
The Montana Districting and Apportionment Commission is charged with evaluating Montana's 100 state House districts every 10 years after the U.S. census is completed. Once new House district boundaries are adopted, they will be grouped into state Senate districts. The new districts would be in effect for the 2004 Legislature.
The 2000 census showed growth in Montana of about 103,000 people, with most of the growth in the west. Many eastern counties declined in population.
The commission began by making four proposals for redistricting in north-central Montana. It recently released its proposals for northeastern Montana, including a fifth proposal that would affect districts near Havre.
The commission is scheduled to meet in Havre on Jan. 16 at the meeting room in the Hill County Justice Center to collect public comment about the proposals.
State Rep. Merlin Wolery, R-Rudyard, said three districts may move from eastern Montana to the west, with the remaining districts enlarging in area to contain enough people. Each district has to hold about 1 percent of the state population, or 9,200 people.
Wolery said districts should group people of similar backgrounds and concerns to allow good representation. Some of the districts in the proposed plans cover areas that are too large and group people with different concerns, he said.
"What I'd like to see is a combination of these plans," he said.
Parts of different plans could be combined to create better districts, Wolery said.
Brad Lotton, chair of the Hill County Republican Party, said it's important for people to attend the meeting and express their concerns about being fairly represented in the Legislature. One plan in particular, Plan 300, would create some enormous districts that would be difficult for a representative or a senator to cover, he said. Representing a district that stretches across four counties, as two of the proposed districts in Plan 300 do, would be difficult, he said.
Plans 100, 200 and 400 have very similar outside boundaries, but would divide up some towns differently. Plan 500 is similar to Plan 300 in outside boundaries.
State Sen. Jon Tester, D-Big Sandy, said that because of the shift in population from eastern Montana to western Montana and the size needed for eastern districts because of low population density, the issue in redistricting isn't about political parties. Redistricting often is a political battleground as parties try to draw districts to give them an advantage.
"The bottom line is, the part that scares me, it's not a political thing, Democrat versus Republican, the issue is urban versus rural, east versus west," he said. "You look at this stuff and you wonder when its going to stop."
Tester said that until something is done to bring more family farmers and more businesses to eastern Montana, the districts will continue to grow in size, making them more difficult to represent.
"Any time you make the district bigger, it makes it more difficult, but that's just the way it is," he said.
Susan Fox, research analyst for the commission, said the commission plans to tentatively adopt a regional plan for north-central Montana by the end of March, probably at a meeting at Crow Agency or Billings. Until then, the plans can be adjusted and could even be changed somewhat afterward, she said.
"Changes can still be made but major changes are not likely," she said. "It gets less likely as time goes on."
The commission must follow certain criteria when drawing district boundaries. Mandatory criteria include making the districts compact, contiguous and having the correct population. Discretionary criteria include keeping communities of similar interest together and following political or geographic boundaries where possible.
Some of the issues, like population and contiguity, cannot be changed, but Fox said other issues would be open for comment.
"Compactness, obviously, is something that is in the eye of the beholder, and that's something people could comment on," she said.
The Jan. 16 meeting begins with an executive session at 3 p.m. It is a public meeting, but comment will not be taken. A public hearing begins at 7 p.m.
On the Net: Districting and Apportionment Commission: http://leg.state.mt.us/Interim_Committees/Districting_and_Apportionment