October 29, 2009

Next year’s census may give more power to outer suburbs in Congress, General Assembly

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By Andy Rosen
Andy@MarylandReporter.com

Gov. Martin O’Malley sought Tuesday to motivate Maryland’s federally-employed U.S. Census workers and citizens to get ready for the country’s 2010 head count, an undertaking that could have significant political and financial implications for the state — and may shift some power to the outer suburbs.

At a kickoff event, O’Malley highlighed the federal funding and congressional representation that is tied to Maryland’s population levels. The physical size and shape of state congressional districts is determined by the outcome, as are district lines in the General Assembly.

The federal government also doles out upwards of $400 billion in grants each year based on the count.

“If we don’t count everyone, we could lose a congressional seat, and even [more], we can lose a lot of federal money that should be coming back to Maryland,” O’Malley said, with as much $1,000 per person in federal funding at stake.

But for all of the concern about Maryland’s population relative to other states, the count is likely to have a bigger impact on politics within Maryland.

Dennis Muniak, an associate professor of political science at Towson University, said he thinks the 2010 census is going to further a population shift toward the formerly-rural land ringing the metropolitan areas.

“As we have a movement of population into the outer suburban areas — I like to call them ‘exurbs’  — you get to redraw congressional district lines,” Muniak said. “You hold onto your eight seats, but the eight seats have a very different look.”

He said some of the gainers might be Carroll County, Frederick County and parts of Southern Maryland.

Montgomery County had one of the state’s fastest rates of growth between 2000 and 2008, according to the U.S. Census Bureau. It gained more than 70,000 people over that time, which brought it to about 951,000. Baltimore City lost about 14,000 people at the same time. That is a slower rate of decline than between 1990 and 2000, when the city lost almost 85,000 people.

Maryland is not expected to be in danger of losing a seat in the House. Other states, such as Massachusetts, are girding for the loss of a representative as their population declines. According to the census, Maryland gained more than 500,000 people between 2000 and 2008, and has a population of more than 5.6 million.

The nature of any redistricting that follows the census count will likely be determined by the winner of next year’s gubernatorial election. But Muniak pointed out that areas can be unpredictable when they become more powerful. He said Fairfax County, in growing Northern Virginia, voted much more heavily Democratic in last year’s election than many expected.

“There’s a lot going on here, and I think the average person has no clue how important the census is,” he said.

Walt Townshend, president and CEO of the Baltimore Washington Corridor Chamber, said at the kickoff event that it is crucial that everybody be counted. “More than $400 billion of federal funding is distributed to the states each year based on census population data,” he said. “It’s in our hands.”