HELENA – The U.S. Census Bureau released data from the 2010 census Tuesday that shows double-digit population growth in some of Montana’s largest cities and sets the stage for a two-year process to realign the state’s legislative districts.
The data details population changes in Montana’s counties since 2000 and will be used by the Districting and Apportionment Commission appointed by legislative leaders in 2009 to determine how to evenly divide Montana’s 100 legislative districts.
Redistricting can be a thorny process, with political parties hoping the state’s legislative map is redrawn in their favor.
“Redistricting, if you look at the process all over the country, it can certainly be contentious,” said Jon Bennion, a Republican-appointed commission member and director of government relations for the Montana Chamber of Commerce. “I think if the process as laid out in the Montana Constitution goes as intended, we will have a bipartisan result.”
The commission is made up of Bennion, another Republican appointee, two Democratic appointees and former state Supreme Court Justice Jim Regnier as chairman.
The data released Tuesday comes three months after the Census Bureau’s first batch of data showed the state’s overall population was 989,415, which is an increase of 9.7 percent but not enough to gain a second congressman.
The new data shows Billings, the state’s largest city at 104,170 people, grew nearly 16 percent since the 2000 census. Missoula, the second-largest city at 66,788 people, grew more than 17 percent.
Bozeman grew at the fastest rate, expanding 35.5 percent over 10 years to 37,280 people.
Great Falls with a population of 58,505 and Butte-Silver Bow at 34,200 rounded out the state’s five largest cities.
Among counties, Gallatin and Flathead recorded the fastest rate of growth, at 32 percent and 22 percent, respectively.
Commission members say they will have to dig deep into the data to see whether Republicans or Democrats will benefit from the population shifts.
“Usually closer to the larger population centers we tend to do better than the less populated areas. If Bozemen numbers are up, that might be good for Democrats. Conversely, the Flathead (County) numbers are up, and that’s not as good (for Democrats),” said Joe Lamson, a Democratic-appointed commissioner who also served on the 2000 redistricting commission.
The commission’s first task is to present a new congressional district within 90 days — an easy task, since Montana has only one congressional district. After that begins the more arduous task of realigning the state’s 100 legislative districts so they are evenly split by population.
The commission must present a redrawn legislative district map to the next regular session of the Legislature, which does not meet again until 2013. That means the new districts will not be in effect until the 2014 election.
“I think that’s good because it’s going to allow us to really reach out to the public and ask them how maps are to be drawn instead of rushing it,” Bennion said.
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