More than just Maine’s woeful budget makes shrinking the House of Representatives a smart idea. The looming 2010 census and the demographic knowledge it will undoubtedly unveil also makes re-making districts now the right choice.
Both the budget and census should be the overdue push lawmakers have needed to aggressively consider downsizing. They have faced accusations of a double-standard in asking others to make drastic changes to tighten their belts, while doing little themselves.
Timing this effort to the upcoming census should provide the framework to not only bring legislative costs under control, but to do it fairly and with the most accurate information. The amendment approved by the House on Wednesday would send the final shrinkage plan to go to voters in November, 2010. Perhaps it should be delayed six months or one year, to allow census information to emerge.
Cutting the number of legislators in the House must be done equitably and sensibly, above all else. The most up-to-date information will help Maine policymakers do that, to the benefit of all. It might even uncover opportunities for further savings, based on what new demographic information it reveals.
We don’t think, however, it should be given that a downsized House should mean fewer rural representatives. Yes, Maine is a predominantly rural state, which means a smaller House should proportionally affect rural areas more. But must this be the case?
Both Lewiston-Auburn and Portland have seven House seats. Is it possible, to prevent degradation of rural representation, that each community manage with only five? If a smaller House means skewing the power balance, alternatives should be considered.
In the redistricting in 2002, the loss of rural representation was apparent. Ryan Low, the governor’s finance chief, steered the last redistricting as a Democratic staff member. On Wednesday, he said that effort benefited the growing districts, such as those in Cumberland County, at the expense of rural districts in Aroostook County.
Should the same happen again? These are details that sensible policymakers and census data could resolve, to ensure fair, accessible representation is available to all Mainers, regardless of where they live.
Rep. David Van Wie, D-New Gloucester, and Rep. Pat Flood, D-Winthrop, deserve credit for pushing this idea. “Given the budget, how can we say, ‘Not us?’ … I just felt the timing was right,” Van Wie said Wednesday, when the House approved shrinking itself.
He was right, in more ways than one.
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