Kel Seliger has a lot of territory to cover. His Texas Senate district stretches across 37 counties in the Panhandle and western part of the state -- up from 26 before redistricting.
“I have the most sparsely populated county in the U.S.,” Seliger says. “Loving County -- 82 people.”
Rural areas such as Seliger’s district have not kept up with anything like the population growth in cities and suburbs. There’s nothing new about this -- the number of rural legislative seats has been in decline for decades. Still, there will be notably fewer legislators from rural areas taking seats as sessions get under way in January, even in farm states such as Indiana, Minnesota and Wisconsin.
That means outstate areas that traditionally dominated many chambers will now struggle even to be heard. “It will be difficult for the rural areas to predominate on certain issues,” says former state Rep. Roger Lane, who oversaw the recent round of redistricting in Georgia, in which the metro Atlanta area took a majority of state House seats for the first time. “You can’t use that old standard of us against them. You have to work together to get things done.”
Seliger argues that just because fewer members represent rural areas, that doesn’t mean they’ll ignore rural issues. Legislators vote their districts, but also have to look out for the good of the state as a whole. “Even though oil is the sexy thing right now, agriculture is the leading part of the economy of our state,” says Jeff Missling, executive vice president of the North Dakota Farm Bureau. “I think our urban legislators understand that.”
But legislators naturally concern themselves with the problems that matter most to their own constituencies. Legislators from cities and suburbs care more about issues such as traffic congestion than farm supports. They will cast a skeptical eye on resource requests from nearly empty counties that still have, say, more than a dozen school districts.
And, in an era of less than fully robust state coffers, there may be less emphasis on maintaining rural infrastructure, whether it’s upkeep of farm-to-market roads or ensuring universal access to broadband. Rural legislators such as Seliger will try to win favors for their districts by supporting initiatives their urban colleagues like, but they will have a lot fewer votes to trade compared even to recent years.
“In a number of ways, you’ll see some great policy debates,” says Leticia Van de Putte, a state senator from San Antonio. “A lot of the rural districts in east Texas have water, and a lot of the urban districts are thirsty.