Arizona voters could soon decide if more is better — at least when it comes to state lawmakers.
The House of Representatives next week is set to consider SCR 1010, which would mandate one legislative district for every 220,000 residents.
Based on estimates from the state Office of Economic Opportunity, that would mean at least 33 senators and 66 representatives — one senator and two representatives for each district — after the 2020 census. The Arizona Constitution now has a hard cap of 30 and 60, respectively.
It is that cap that concerns Sen. Warren Petersen, R-Gilbert.
The 30 districts were created by voters in 1972. At that time, the state’s population had just surpassed 2 million. What that meant is that lawmakers from each district had about 67,000 constituents.
By the 2000 census, the last time the lines were redrawn, that had grown to about 220,000 constituents per district. And that, Petersen contends, is just too much.
“There is a principle of representing the people, being accessible, being close to the people,” he told colleagues when the measure was unveiled this week in the House Appropriations Committee. “As my district has exploded, I have felt that it can be harder to reach more people.”
The sheer numbers are just part of the problem.
Rep. Regina Cobb, R-Kingman, pointed out that her District 5 runs from Colorado City on the state’s Utah border down through her hometown, Lake Havasu City, Parker and Quartzsite. She said it takes her eight hours to get from one end to the other.
“And that’s the way I drive,” she quipped.
But that’s nothing compared to District 7. It winds from Seligman and Peach Springs through part of Flagstaff, up to the state’s northeast corner, then down through Winslow and Springerville into the Fort Apache and San Carlos reservations.
What Petersen proposes is to use that 220,000 figure, divide it into what the Census Bureau finds is the state’s population every 10 years, and come up with the number of districts. Petersen told colleagues he figured that would add one or two districts after the 2020 count.
The Office of Economic Opportunity, however, figures Arizona will reach a population of 7.35 million by the end of the decade. That math comes out to 33.4 districts, rounded down to 33.
Using the same agency projections, Arizona would have 39 districts by 2030 and 44 by 2040, translating to 44 senators and 88 representatives.
Rep. Ken Clark, D-Phoenix, said Petersen is on the right track.
“It’s impossible to be able to have any amount of time to spend with anybody,” he said. But Clark said Petersen is being far too timid in his planning.
“It’s not aggressive enough,” he said, suggesting an immediate increase to 60 districts — meaning 60 senators and 120 representatives.
Clark conceded that he has an ulterior motive for the idea.
“My goal here is to get enough members so we can tear down these old buildings,” he said.
While the twin House and Senate buildings are not old — they were constructed in the 1960s — they have been remodeled internally several times in efforts to make their boxy designs more functional.
Clark also warned fellow legislators there are political implications to the expansion plan.
He pointed out that the largest area of population growth has been Maricopa County. That is expected to continue.
In 2010, for example, Maricopa County residents made up 59.7 percent of the state. By 2040, that will increase to more than 62 percent.
What all that means, said Clark, is that additional districts — and the representation that comes with them — will likely end up in Maricopa County, further diluting rural political power.
Petersen, however, said the change still could help rural lawmakers by shrinking their districts, at least geographically.
Rep. Jill Norgaard, R-Phoenix, chided Petersen for favoring an increase in the size of government. Aside from additional lawmakers, each paid $24,000 a year plus benefits and per diem allowances, that also means more staffers for all of them.
Petersen, however, saw no conflict with his general philosophy of smaller government.
“I believe we should have more elected officials,” he said. “What I don’t believe in, what I’ve fought against, are expanding the growth of the bureaucracy and government.”
If the plan is approved by the full House, it still needs review by the Senate. And if it survives there, the measure ultimately would go on the ballot, though at this point it is not clear whether that would be this November or in 2020.