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Legislative quality lacking

Travel burden puts rural lawmakers at a disadvantage

In addition to concentrating Minnesota legislative power in the metro suburbs, the recent redistricting process has added to existing disadvantages experienced by legislators outside the metro area.

Redistricting is properly designed to allow each state representative or state senator to represent an approximately equal number of constituents. That number stays about the same for all legislators in each house, but the square miles in non-metro districts continue to grow. That places an added burden on legislators not based in the Twin Cities.

A study by a Bemidji State University professor shows that, during 2001, rural senators traveled an average of 12,400 miles to carry out their legislative duties. For senators living in the metropolitan area, that figure was 600 miles.

; The study was summarized by Patrick Donnay, a professor of political science, in a column in the Star Tribune of Minneapolis. He added that some rural senators traveled as much as 25,000 miles and, at an average speed of 60 miles an hour, that would represent 400 hours of driving time to serve constituents.

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Another disadvantage for rural legislators is that they have to spend as much as four nights a week away from their homes and families during a legislative session. Metro area legislators can spend every night at home.

The experience of Sen. Sheila Kiscaden, R-Rochester, is a good example of the trend. As a result of the recent redistricting, her district went from a compact area covering the city of Rochester to a huge district representing half of Rochester, the eastern half of Olmsted County and a section of Wabasha County. As she put it, "I go from representing one county, one community, one school board to representing two counties, six communities, eight school boards and 16 townships."

; One result of these inequalities is that it is getting harder to recruit candidates from non-metro districts in both parties. Donnay wrote that rural legislators find it more difficult to balance their work and family lives with their government careers. As a result, he said, there are only 20 state senators younger than 50 years old and, of those, only seven are from districts outside the metro area.

The purpose of redistricting is to give every voter an equal amount of representation in the Legislature. However, if the process tends to shift more power to the metro area and, at the same time, discourages strong candidates from running in rural districts, the result is not as equal as it might seem.

; Changing the system would be difficult. Any action to raise rural legislators' pay in order to compensate them for time spent on the road and time away from home is not seen as practical. That is especially true since such a change would have to be approved by the metro area legislators who have more votes.

Nevertheless, Donnay has cited a significant issue. The state as a whole will not be well-served if legislative work becomes unattractive for candidates in non-metro districts. Both parties need to put their best minds to work in studying the problem.

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