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Minnesota’s population changes over the last decade will give rise to a complex set of moving pieces when lawmakers redraw legislative districts after the 2010 U.S. Census is completed.

Exurban wave will drive redistricting

Peter Bartz-Gallagher)

State Demographer Tom Gillaspy says population growth in the farthest-flung suburbs will be a defining feature of 2012 redistricting – even though that trend was beginning to reverse itself by decade’s end. (Staff photo: Peter Bartz-Gallagher)

Traditionally powerful Iron Range will see its clout erode further

Minnesota’s population changes over the last decade will give rise to a complex set of moving pieces when lawmakers redraw legislative districts after the 2010 U.S. Census is completed.

Minnesota State Demographer Tom Gillaspy expects that lawmakers will have to react to growth on the fringes of the Twin Cities metropolitan area by cramming more of the state’s 201 legislative districts in the outer suburbs and semi-rural areas that are situated just beyond the metro. Gillaspy refers to the area as “the doughnut.”

“The doughnut ring around the Twin Cities has been growing rapidly,” noted Gillaspy, “and much of the rest of the state outside of that has not grown as rapidly. The central cities and inner ring suburbs have not grown as rapidly. Some have declined.”

While that growth will likely result in more legislative districts in the outer Twin Cities suburbs after the districts are redrawn, the exurbs’ elevated political standing might not be long-lasting. An aging population is one factor, said Gillaspy: “As more people retire and become empty nesters, all of the growth in households will be older people living alone. Those generally aren’t the people who buy the starter mansion out on the prairie.” Another factor is the collapse of the decade-long housing bubble, which drove an enormous amount of new residential construction on the fringes of the Minneapolis-St. Paul metro area.

Over the long term, these factors are likely to slow the growth in those same areas in the decades that follow, Gillaspy said. But for now, the fringes of the metropolitan area appear poised to see their political power increase.

“In general, legislative districts in the outer suburbs and doughnut ring around the Twin Cities will get [geographically] smaller than they are. The interior [districts] from the central cities and inner ring will get larger in terms of physical area,” Gillaspy said.

Gillaspy is girding for his fourth round of redistricting as state demographer. His office is required by law to release annual population and household estimates for counties, cities and townships. Those numbers are expected to be ready by mid-July, Gillaspy said. They will constitute the last snapshot of how many people are believed to live in the state before the next set of official census numbers are released.

Overall, the state had 4,919,479 people in the 2000 Census. Census officials projected the state’s population grew to 5,143,134 as of July 1, 2006. After that time, the number continued to increase, but at a slower rate due to the downturn in the economy and a drop-off in home sales and residential construction. In 2008, there were an estimated 5,287,976 people living in Minnesota.

The projected annual increases in population, if accurate, will require changes to the state’s legislative and congressional boundaries. In the last couple of redistricting rounds, political fights have ground the process to a halt, leaving the courts to do the Legislature’s job. Senate Majority Leader Larry Pogemiller, DFL-Minneapolis, mounted an unsuccessful push for legislation that would have created a panel of judges to draw legislative districts for the final approval of elected state lawmakers. The measure was defeated with bipartisan opposition.

But some important factors that frame the redistricting process are a matter of simple geography. One is the borders of the state itself. Lawmakers will have to draw districts that skew toward the center of the state, because, as Gillaspy puts it, they can’t usurp Minnesota’s neighbors’ land. Population growth in the four corners of the state has lagged that of the outer suburbs significantly.

“The constraints are that we have boundaries — we can’t go into Canada,” said Gillaspy. “Those districts in all four corners are going to get larger. They are going to press out into the middle. All of that is going to push into this ring. Within the doughnut, those districts are going to have to move outward.”

From the standpoint of political power, there will be losers and winners among Minnesota’s regions in the next redistricting.

For example, northeastern Minnesota, which is home to the traditionally powerful contingent of Iron Range legislators, is vulnerable. As Aaron Brown, a DFL-leaning writer and political operative on the Iron Range, noted, legislative districts in the region have been expanding for decades as the Range’s population has declined with the volatile swings in the fortunes of the mining industry. Brown sees little alternative now to the merging of legislative seats on the Range.

“We know that 2012 redistricting is likely to cost us at least one House seat, possibly two — depending on what you consider ‘Iron Range’ — and possibly one Senate seat,” Brown said.

If Brown’s prediction becomes reality, however, lawmakers will have many geopolitical variables to negotiate when they sit down to reassemble the districts.

“All of this will affect little things like: Do we have just one ‘core’ Range district or a bunch of districts that are part Range? How competitive is the DFL willing to make these districts to protect incumbents? How much territory do we lose to the Brainerd Lakes area or the Bemidji sphere of influence?” Brown said.

The shape and number of Minnesota congressional districts are also in play. The state’s eight congressional districts — assuming Minnesota still has eight after the 2010 Census, which remains in doubt — are bound to be reshuffled by the same pattern of population expansion in the outer ’burbs and contraction in the cities and rural areas.

Gillaspy said the Fourth and Fifth Congressional Districts, which center on St. Paul and Minneapolis, respectively, will get larger. So will the Eighth District in northeastern Minnesota, which has enlarged significantly during the tenure of 18-term DFL U.S. Rep. Jim Oberstar of Duluth. Districts that include portions of the Twin Cities’ fringe — especially the Sixth District, which is represented by GOP Rep. Michele Bachmann and abuts Oberstar’s district — will get geographically smaller after the next redistricting.

However, Gillaspy warned, Minnesota stands on the brink of losing one of its eight seats when Congress is reapportioned. “If we move down to seven seats,” he said, “then all bets are off and we will have to move to a different configuration.”

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