Slow populations growth may reduce political clout in rural N.M.

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By Barry Massey

SANTA FE — Rural New Mexico risks losing clout in the Legislature in the coming decade because of the politics of population.

The 2010 Census will be used to redraw boundaries of New Mexico’s legislative and congressional seats. However, the government’s most recent population estimates don’t look good for eastern New Mexico and other rural areas because slow-growing regions could end up losing seats in the Legislature.

“Rural areas of New Mexico have not kept pace with the cities in the last decade ... and so there is always that possibility, if not probability, of a shifting of some seats,” said Brian Sanderoff, who has worked in the past as a consultant to the Legislature on redistricting.

Counties in eastern and southeastern New Mexico grew 1.1 percent from 2000 to 2008. That’s the slowest of any region in the state, according to Sanderoff, who runs an Albuquerque-based research and polling company that analyzed census figures for the Legislature to use in redistricting after the 2000 Census.

The Albuquerque metropolitan area — including the cities of Albuquerque and Rio Rancho - grew the fastest in 2000-2008: 16.4 percent. Southwestern New Mexico increased 9.6 percent but that was fueled mainly by population gains in Las Cruces and Dona Ana County.

North-central New Mexico increased by 4.5 percent but that was mostly because of growth in the city of Santa Fe and Santa Fe County. Northwestern New Mexico was up 2.9 percent.

Redistricting will not take place until 2011, but the upcoming elections — particularly the race for governor ­— will play an important role in determining how the politically critical task of redrawing districts is carried out. The stakes are particularly high for Republicans, who have long been the minority party in the Legislature. Statewide, Democrats hold a 1.6-to-1 advantage in voter registration.

The Legislature uses census information for its once-a-decade assignment of changing boundaries of voting districts to reflect population shifts across the state.

When redistricting took place after the 2000 Census, New Mexico had a divided government. Republican Gary Johnson served as governor and Democrats controlled both chambers of the Legislature.

Johnson vetoed Democratic-sponsored redistricting plans, contending they would hurt Republicans. State courts ended up drawing the boundaries of congressional and state House of Representative districts.

If Democrats win the governorship in the November general election, the party should have solid control over redistricting.