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North Dakota legislators face loss of clout during redistricting

BISMARCK, N.D. (AP) — State Sen. Jerry Klein’s legislative district covers a section of North Dakota that’s bigger than Connecticut. Democratic state Rep. Josh Boschee says he can walk the entire length of his Fargo district in less than a half hour.

While both districts have roughly the same number of constituents, “city lawmakers might need two pairs of sneakers; us rural lawmakers need two sets of tires,” said Klein, a Republican and retired grocer from tiny Fessenden.

Klein and other rural lawmakers worry that when new political maps are drawn this year their political influence will shrink amid population growth in and around a handful of North Dakota’s larger cities.

Legislative redistricting occurs every 10 years after a federal census. It aims to ensure each lawmaker represents about the same number of people. A redistricting committee of 14 Republicans and two Democrats was picked Wednesday and must craft a plan to reflect that over the next several months.

Some lawmakers expect some partisan political bickering during the process, but the biggest task, they say, will be striking a balance between urban and rural interests.

Rural priorities increasingly don’t mirror those in the state’s larger cities, which have a lopsided number of lawmakers in the Legislature without rural roots, Klein said.

“The concern is we are moving away from agriculture,” said Klein who has been in the Senate since 1997. “There was a time even (urban lawmakers) grew up on farm.”

North Dakota currently has 47 legislative districts, and each is represented by two House members and a senator. The North Dakota Constitution allows for as few as 40 legislative districts and as many as 54.

When the Legislature completed its last redistricting plan a decade ago, district populations averaged about 14,500 people. The new plan will likely add about 2,000 more people to that, with preliminary census estimates.

That means in rural North Dakota, which has been losing population for decades, more real estate would be needed to reach the increased population numbers. That could put some legislators in the same district as other incumbent lawmakers, forcing them to run against each other to keep their jobs.

The number of districts also could be expanded to prevent already sprawling districts from becoming more so. That idea has met some resistance in the past, with more conservative lawmakers arguing it grows government. During the 1990s, the Legislature had 49 districts and 147 members. It had 53 districts and 159 members in the 1980s,

Each added district would cost more than $1 million over a decade with increased pay and benefits for the additional lawmakers, said John Bjornson, who heads the nonpartisan Legislative Council, the Legislature’s research arm.

Areas in and around Fargo, Bismarck, Minot and Grand Forks already account for nearly half of the Legislature’s 141 members. Fargo and Bismarck likely could add districts with new population estimates.

Republican GOP Rep. Keith Kempenich, who has been in the House since 1993, has seen years of population decline in North Dakota. He represents the state’s largest legislative district by area — stretching from near Williston in northwestern North Dakota to the South Dakota border.

Kempenich’s region covers almost 8,600 square miles, which is bigger than six states and nearly as large as New Hampshire.

The Bowman rancher said lawmakers representing urban areas of the state increasingly don’t have a strong understanding of rural needs.

“Access to technology and medical is stuff cities take for granted,” he said.

It’s important for rural lawmakers to remind their urban colleagues that agriculture plays a big role in the state’s economy, he said.

“In a lot of peoples’ minds, we are still a rural state even though most legislators are urban,” Kempenich said.