Before redistricting, Massachusetts counts residents -- and dogs

Small armies of police, firefighters, and other municipal employees in Massachusetts are readying for a statewide head count of every man, woman, and child -- as well as Fido, Rover, and Lassie. The main thrust of the commonwealth's mid-decade census is to find out how many people live in Massachusetts, what they do, and where they reside.

But also tallied will be the number of pet dogs.

Although decennial people counts have been mandated in the Bay State for the past 150 years, this is the first involving the canine population. Cats, parakeets, goldfish, and other nonbarking household pets, however, will remain uncounted.

Besides the number of people and dogs, within each community and its political subdivisions, the state census will include the age, occupation, and sex of each of every person.

Efforts by leaders of the black community to further expand the data collected to include each resident's race failed during the waning days of the 1984 state legislative session.

Proponents argue that such information is essential to ensure proper representation for blacks and other minorities in the state legislature, since the 1985 census will be the basis for redistricting lawmaking seats for the 10 years beginning in 1989.

Massachusetts is the only state in the country that does not use latest federal decennial census figures in apportioning its Senate and House seats.

Critics of the Massachusetts census say using federal data for redistricting would save the taxpayers money. The current census is expected to cost the Bay State $6.3 million. That includes a $1-per-person reimbursement to cities and towns for taking the census, plus $300,000 for state administrative expenses. Ten years ago the project cost only about one-fourth the amount, with municipalities given 25 cents per resident.

The Massachusetts Taxpayers' Foundation (MTF) wants the 1985 census to be the commonwealth's last, and is expected to push a change in the state constitution to base legislative districting on the federal census.

The private watchdog organization and other critics say the change would free up state dollars for other programs. And they question the accuracy of such data, suggesting that leaving the job in local hands is an incentive for municipalities to overcount their inhabitants. The more people within a city or town, the stronger its political representation in the legislature, as well as it proportion of state and federal aid.

The MTF holds that the federal Census Bureau is in a better position to provide an accurate people count.

Legislative redistricting in Massachusetts could be done immediately following each regular federal decennial census, as in all other states except for Kansas, instead of late in the decade, the MTF suggests.

A recently completed MTF population study, based on federal census tallies and projections, concludes that while the number of residents in Massachusetts has remained relatively the same over the past decade, there has been a substantial movement of people within the commonwealth. The biggest growth is occurring in the southeastern part of the state, particularly in Plymouth and Bristol Counties and on Cape Cod.

Meanwhile, Suffolk County, which includes Boston and three smaller communities to its northeast, has declined in population. When next redistricted, it stands to lose up to 4 of its 19 seats in the 160-member state House of Representatives.

The 1980 federal census listed 5,737,093 Bay Staters, 52,385 fewer than in the 1975 state census.

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