State becomes more urban; lawmakers concerned how move will affect ag
By SEAN ELLIS
BOISE -- When the Idaho Legislature convenes next January, there will be a lot of new faces and that concerns many in the agricultural community, which has always enjoyed significant clout in the Statehouse.
Because of a shakeup resulting from Idaho's redistricting process, up to a third of Idaho's 105 legislators will be new next year.
"I'm very nervous about how that will impact agriculture's voice in the legislature," Rep. Dennis Lake, a Republican rancher from Blackfoot, said. "It gives me cause for concern."
Because Idaho's 21 percent growth from 2000 to 2010 was concentrated in Idaho's urban areas, those areas gained more representation in the redistricting process.
For example, Ada County, Idaho's largest urban area, saw its population grow by 30.4 percent during that time, while adjacent Canyon County, Idaho's second-largest urban area, grew by 43.7 percent.
By contrast, rural Bear Lake and Caribou counties saw their populations decline by 6.6 and 7 percent.
"Everybody's concerned about the possible impact," said John Thompson, spokesman for Idaho Farm Bureau Federation, the state's largest farm group. "It's just a result of our state changing from rural to urban. We continue to lose rural legislators."
At least 23 of the 70 House members have decided not to run next year because of redistricting. Including those who will lose their re-election bids, "I expect there will be over 30 changes in the House alone," said Lake, who says his own decision not to run again was not due to redistricting.
The Senate is also looking at some major turnover. Ten House members will vie for Senate seats next year and with the House generally being viewed as more conservative than the Senate, the Senate could experience a paradigm shift, Lake said.
"There are big changes coming and there is a valid concern about how it will impact agriculture," said Sen. Jeff Siddoway, a Republican rancher from Terreton and chairman of the Senate Agricultural Affairs Committee.
Agricultural lobbyist Rick Waitley said until he can learn more about the candidates who will vie for seats this fall, he's not ready to claim any definitive impact on agriculture's voice from redistricting.
Some of ag's best advocates represent non-rural areas, he said, and it's more important to select candidates who have open minds and are willing to be educated about the industry.
"As long as a legislator is teachable and will listen, then I am not particular about where they live or where they were raised," he said.
Idaho's agricultural community enjoys considerable clout in the legislature. Twenty-two lawmakers are current or retired farmers or ranchers and 11 others are involved with agri-business or closely associated with farming or ranching.
"It couldn't possibly get any better than what we have now," Lake said. "I think we are in great shape right now."
There will definitely be some major changes next election cycle, he adds. "We just hope the changes are some other people (favorable) to agriculture."