The Agenda

Thinking Through the Policy Impact of Reapportionment

The Census has released its new reapportionment numbers, and as a New Yorker I regret to report that the Empire State has lost two of its congressional districts. But there is good news as well, particularly for conservatives. Building on Dave Wasserman’s analysis at the Cook Political Report, Nate Silver observes that much of the population growth we’ve seen over the last decade has been in conservative-leaning exurbs:

Essentially all of the fastest-growing districts are in inland areas south of the Mason-Dixon line, or are west of the Continental Divide. Many are in areas that demographers describe as ‘exurbs’: newly developing areas that are located relatively far — perhaps a 30- or 60-minute drive — from cities like Phoenix, Dallas, Houston, Las Vegas, Charlotte or Atlanta, and that attract an upscale mix of commuters, families and retirees. Although most major American cities are no longer losing population — on the contrary, at least 20 of the 25 largest cities are likely to have gained population in the 2010 Census compared with 2000 — they are not growing as fast as the exurbs, and therefore stand to lose proportionally, because the number of seats in Congress is fixed.

As Nate goes on to explain, it is very likely that Democrats will gain as the Latin-origin population increases. But the demographic mix and the pattern of control of state legislatures will benefit Republicans overall, and presumably conservative Republicans.

There are many different ways of thinking about the exurbs. In the early 2000s, John Judis and Ruy Teixeira noted that while the exurbs were fast-growing, they were starting from a relatively small base. Moreover, as they expanded, they were more likely to consume, and to want to consume, public services, and that they’d want to upgrade existing public services as density increased, etc. This created an opportunity for progressives. A decade on, many exurban communities have mushroomed. Yet they’re still not best understood as inner suburbs, partly because they’re often more economically autonomous. Exurbs in hard-hit regions of Nevada, Florida, Arizona, and inland California will be interesting to watch in terms of evolving policy preferences. Many exurban households find themselves underwater on their mortgages, and one wonders if this will shape the worldview of the conservative legislators representing them.

Optimistically, the population shift to low-cost regions of the South and West might also strengthen the hand of those who seek to eliminate or reform the state and local tax deduction and the mortgage interest deduction. Many of the affluent suburbanites who benefit most from those deductions can be found in states that find themselves slightly weaker after this round of apportionment. 

And in November, Americans for Tax Reform offered their own distinctive take on the driver of population shifts, as Barbara Hollingsworth noted at the Washington Examiner:


Eight states are projected to gain at least one congressional seat under reapportionment following the 2010 Census: Texas (four seats), Florida (two seats), Arizona, Georgia, Nevada, South Carolina, Utah and Washington (one seat each). Their average top state personal income tax rate: 2.8 percent.

By contrast, New York and Ohio are likely to lose two seats each, while Illinois, Iowa, Louisiana, Massachusetts, Michigan, Missouri, New Jersey, and Pennsylvania will be down one apiece. The average top state personal income tax rate in these loser states: 6.05 percent.

The state and local tax burden is nearly a third lower in states with growing populations, ATR found. As a result, per capita government spending is also lower: $4,008 for states gaining congressional seats, $5,117 for states losing them.

Suffice it to say, I think there’s more going on, but this is undoubtedly part of it.

As Nicole Gelinas argued in City Journal last year, there is a real risk that states like Arizona, Nevada, and Florida, which she dubbed the “JetBlue states” in honor of the zippy, fast-growing low-cost airline, will see sharp tax increases over the next decade as they come to resemble states like New York, New Jersey, and California demographically and politically.

One way out of this trap is to use repeal of the state and local tax deduction and Medicaid reform — transitioning Medicaid into a block grant — to spur competitive federalism. By no longer subsidizing high levels of state and local spending in the most affluent states, we’d create a powerful incentive for states to achieve efficiencies and to compete for residents on the classic Tiebout basis: some states will choose high taxes and lots of high-quality public services, others will choose low taxes and fewer high-quality public services, and of course some will wind up with high taxes and lots of low-quality public services, as in California and New Jersey and New York at present. 

A final thought on apportionment: a crude average tells us that each House seat now represents over 700,000 constituents. That’s nuts. Montana has just shy of a million people, and it grew by almost 10 percent. But still, no second seat. The number of House seats is set by statute, and increasing it won’t have any baleful consequences. The Bundestag manages with 622 members just fine. 

Check out Jim Geraghty’s thoughts on the implications for 2012.


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