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Census numbers show shrinking districts in rural areas

Political Notebook

Analysts are still poring over newly released U.S. Census data, but it’s clear that Pennsylvania’s more rural and conservative electoral districts are shrinking, while it’s more left-leaning regions continue to grow.

The results will affect the state for a decade to come, with the General Assembly and a bipartisan commission set to draw new congressional and state-level maps.

At the county level, Allegheny County and two neighboring counties grew since 2010. Centre County — home of Penn State University, and a Democratic-leaning island in a conservative region — grew as well.

Otherwise, the state’s growth was concentrated almost entirely in its southeastern section, where Democratic candidates have made gains in recent elections.

Rural and traditionally Republican-leaning counties in the state’s center and west have almost entirely shrunk — with one, Cameron County, losing one in 10 residents in a decade.

That doesn’t necessarily mean new voters are certain to swing their districts toward the Democrats. But it does pose problems for GOP lawmakers seeking to hold onto a favorable map.

A district-level analysis shared by Spotlight PA shows the problem for some rural Republicans.

In many cases, their House and Senate districts have shrunk substantially, meaning the boundaries are almost certain to change under a new map. More voters in currently Democratic districts mean more seats concentrated in those areas.

And while less fair-minded lawmakers may be inclined to gerrymander districts to ensure a majority, the state’s legislative districts are set to be drawn by a commission with equal representation from each party. Former University of Pittsburgh chancellor Mark Nordenberg heads the body.

Reps don’t spoil on milk

If there’s a bill in Congress with “milk” in its title, you can bet Central Pennsylvania’s representatives are on board — or are the primary sponsors.

This week, Rep. John Joyce, R-13th District, signed on as a cosponsor of the Give MILK Act, which would make it easier for families on the Women, Infants and Children food program to get a wider variety of milk. The federally funded, state-administered program covers some food items for families below a set income level.

Many of the bill’s other sponsors have familiar names. State Reps. Glenn Thompson, R-15th District, and Guy Reschenthaler, R-14th District, are listed, among others, and the bill was first proposed by state Rep. Fred Keller, R-12th District.

Rural Pennsylvania representatives have long pushed for easier access to milk products.

Just look at bills proposed in this Congress: a Milk Freedom Act to protect interstate sales of unpasteurized milk has two Pennsylvanians on board. A School Milk Nutrition Act to expand cafeteria dairy offerings has eight. Thompson’s Whole Milk for Healthy Kids Act has 10.

It may not be surprising, as Pennsylvania is the nation’s seventh largest dairy producer.

In recent years, the state’s rural representatives have repeatedly pushed for wider access to milk, particularly in schools. An earlier push to roll back milk consumption, particularly of higher-fat varieties, prompted a swift reaction by dairy allies.

And as some industry supporters put it, it’s a battle for hearts and minds, not just stomachs.

“We’ve lost almost an entire generation of milk drinkers,” Thompson said earlier this year, “since whole milk was demonized back in 2010.”

Bill would change amendment rules

A state lawmaker aims to limit constitutional amendment votes to high-turnout elections, in a bid to ensure more Pennsylvanians vote on constitutional questions.

In a memo this week, state Rep. Benjamin Sanchez, D-Montgomery, said he will propose legislation to restrict amendment votes to general elections — those held in November, rather than primaries — and only on years where the president or governor is up for election.

Those elections tend to spur far higher turnout, meaning more voters would weigh in on constitutional matters. In Pennsylvania, the Legislature must approve amendments in two consecutive sessions before turning the question to the voters for a referendum.

Those votes appear at the bottom of election ballots. But when they’re attached to low-turnout elections, like municipal primaries, few voters may show interest.

“This means that only a small percentage of voters make their voices heard in altering our state’s most fundamental document,” Sanchez said.

In May, for example, the state tallied more than 8.7 million registered voters, but fewer than 2.3 million cast votes on a pair of hard-fought amendments that restricted the governor’s emergency powers.

Republicans, in charge of the Legislature but facing vetoes from Democratic Gov. Tom Wolf, have shown a growing interest in the use of constitutional amendments. The amendments intended to limit Wolf’s powers passed this spring.

Ryan Brown covers statewide politics for Ogden Newspapers. He can be reached at rbrown@altoonamirror.com.

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