Population decline perils Montana's House delegation

Montana is looking for more than a few good men. Be they boys, girls, men, or women, the state needs from 12,000 to 50,000 new residents by 1990 or it could lose one of its two seats in the US Congress, a Congressional Research Service (CRS) study says.

While the loss may not sound like much, it is 25 percent of Montana's delegation to Washington. The state's loss is also unusual in that it comes at a time when reapportionment is expected to add, not subtract, congressional seats to most states west of the Mississippi River.

Wyoming and Alaska get by with one congressman, but their population is gathered in a few large cities. Montana has seven cities, more than could be served with a single congressman's staff budget, Democrats and Republicans leaders say.

In a state where voters are often on a first-name basis with their congressmen, the prospect of spreading one representative's time among some 800,000 people in the nation's fourth largest-in-area state has political leaders concerned.

A high unemployment rate is driving people out of Big Sky Country, says Montana's Department of Commerce, and a turn-around is not expected in time for the 1990 census, after which Congress's 435 seats will be reapportioned.

The CRS study is based on Census Bureau estimates and projections that show Montana's population is dropping from a 1985 high of 825,000 to this year's estimated population of 809,000.

``You're looking at disenfranchising several hundred thousand people when you lose one congressman,'' says Jack Light, administrative aide to US Rep. Ron Marlenee, a Republican who represents the eastern half of the state.

Already ambivalent about the federal government's role in their lives, Montanans would probably become more skeptical if they lost a seat in Congress, says state Democratic Party executive director Gail Stoltz.

While politicians and political workers wring their hands over the potential loss, some Montanans aren't very concerned.

Wendall Weaver, who runs a welding and paint shop here in Ovando, says he tries to stay out of touch with politics. ``I don't know how it would affect me one way or the other,'' Mr. Weaver says.

There have been 435 seats in Congress since 1930. Assigned by population after each census, the seats have been shifted among states, says CRS analyst David Huckabee.

Montana won't be alone if it loses a seat, but it will suffer the largest percentage cut in representation. The one-man, one-vote rule that governs voting districts applies only within states, not among them, Mr. Huckabee points out.

National population trends indicate that in two years, about 17 congressional seats will be shifted among the states. New York, Pennsylvania, Ohio, and Illinois may lose two and in some cases three congressmen, Huckabee says. Scooping up those seats will be California (adding up to five), Arizona, Texas, and Florida.

What are Montanans doing about the possible loss of a congressional seat?

Political leaders are doing what they usually do: blaming the other party.

``I lay the blame at the feet of Ronald Reagan. ... He has basically driven the people from the state,'' says Democratic Party chief Stoltz, who says Reagan administration policies have been hard on the resource economies of the western states.

On the other hand, State Republican Party director Terry Merica says he is working to ``elect a slate of Republican candidates ... get a GOP governor [who will] act friendlier to business,'' after 23 years of Democratic governors, whom he blamed for overtaxing business and chasing investors from the state.

But he says the problem may also be one that draws the two parties together. ``If these projections were about to come through, I think you'd see a ... coalition between Republicans and Democrats in Washington.''

``Congressman Marlenee knows that ... dwindling jobs is what is causing the population to decline; he is working to better the state's economy,'' says Mr. Light, who adds that Montana needs a population boost of about 12,000 to hold onto its second seat in Congress.

Stoltz is more pessimistic. She says she has heard that the state may need as many as 30,000 or 50,000 people to catch up with the nation's growing population and hold onto a second seat.

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