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Since 1790 the Federal Government has conducted the decennial census every ten years. Originally established as a mere head count of residents of each of the states for the purpose of apportioning members of the U.S. House of Representatives, the census has grown into a comprehensive effort that collects data on a number of characteristics of Americans. That information influences distribution of federal funds based on population as well as serves as the major federal data set for policy analysis during the next ten years.
In the year following each decennial census, states use the population information collected to evaluate the population residing in different electoral districts to determine if they contain relatively equal numbers. These include not only Nebraska’s three members of the U.S. House of Representatives, but more significantly legislative districts for representation in state government, as well as districts for the University of Nebraska Board of Regents, Public Service Commission, and State Board of Education. As shifts in population occur, apportioning equal numbers of voters into each district may require redrawing district boundaries. This process is known as “redistricting”.
Residents of District 38 are quite familiar with the consequences of redistricting. In 2011, LB 703 created new boundaries for the district following the 2010 census. Kearney County was moved into the district, and Harlan County was moved into District 44. Clay County has also moved among different Legislative Districts through different iterations of legislative redistricting.
With the shift in population to Douglas, Sarpy, and Lancaster counties, the redistricting process will continue to have significant implications for representation of rural Nebraska in the Legislature. In 2011, the movement of District 49 from western Nebraska to Gretna created an important change in the Legislature. Of the 49 seats, 25 are now held by representatives of the Omaha and Lincoln urban areas. Current population projections would indicate two additional seats will be shifted away from rural Nebraska to the Omaha/Lincoln area. That magnifies the urban dominance in the Nebraska Legislature from a simple majority to a 27/22 split.
While most rural states also face this population shift, the impact on the representation of rural areas in state government is not as extreme. In a two-house state legislature, the population shifts impact rural representation in the state House of Representatives, while geographic representation remains in the Senate. As the only unicameral in the nation, the loss of legislative seats in the single legislative chamber means a direct loss of representation in state government.
The consequences of this political shift can be enormous for rural Nebraskans. There is no better example than the dysfunctional school funding system that has left rural districts paying for public education almost exclusively with local property taxes, while urban districts consume almost a billion dollars of state equalization aid. Appeals to fairness by rural senators and rural citizen groups have fallen on deaf ears of urban senators, whose support is required to restore equity to the system. The problem has been recognized for almost a decade, with little action to resolve it.
The Nebraska Constitution specifically assigns the responsibility for apportionment and redistricting with the Nebraska Legislature. In advance of the anticipated redistricting process in 2021, several legislative proposals have emerged that attempt to divert the redistricting process to unelected commissions based on party registration. I opposed the first redistricting bill to come to the floor for a vote, LB 580 in 2016. Two additional bills, LB 216 and LB 653, were introduced in this past session and remain in Executive Committee, of which I am Vice Chair. I oppose the creation of any unelected advisory committee for redistricting on a partisan basis, and thus will not support either current bill for advancement to General File.
My experience in the Nebraska Legislature has reinforced the common expression that Nebraska’s greatest divides are not by party, but rather rural versus urban. Low commodity prices have had a direct and significant impact on state revenues, demonstrating that rural Nebraska remains the economic engine of our state and state government. Even with this reality, critical rural needs, such as school funding reform, remain unaddressed despite years of focus and discussion.
Rural Nebraskans should carefully watch and evaluate the redistricting process that will be taking shape in the coming years. To date the focus has been on concerns of political parties, not on the impact of the accelerating shift of representation to urban areas. Voters of District 38 should get engaged: the very nature of your representation in state government rests with the outcome.