Friday, March 20, 2009

A must read: As numbers decline, rural lawmakers band together

March 20, 2009Last Tuesday, 41 members of the Congressional Rural Caucus sent President Obama a letter saying that if he’s going to have a White House Office of Urban Affairs, he should also have a White House Office of Rural Affairs.

Rural consciousness is rising at the state level as well. At the beginning of the year, Tennessee’s legislative rural caucus actually consisted only of a group of Democrats from West Tennessee. Since then, the Democrats have expanded to include members from the other two-thirds of the state in their rural caucus, and rural Republicans – some of whom differed with their urban counterparts over the ouster from the party of House Speaker Kent Williams, have formed their own caucus.

Like most political developments these days, much of what’s driving this is the worsening economy. State Rep. Charles Curtiss (D-Sparta), the chair of the Democratic Rural Caucus, said the unemployment rate in some rural Tennessee counties is now over 20 percent. In this climate, many rural lawmakers worry their concerns will be overlooked.

“There are so many issues that cut differently in rural American than urban America,” said Chuck Hassebrook, executive director of the Center for Rural Affairs.

The traditional conception of the country is that of a healthier alternative to cities, but with fewer hospitals, doctors and recreational facilities, Hassebrook said, “the reality is we’re less fit.”

Al Cross, director of the Institute for Rural Journalism and Community Issues at the University of Kentucky, suggested rural politicians could also be looking at some other numbers.

“I think next year’s census will show a significant decline in the percentage of population that is rural, and the pols can sense it already,” he said.

Cross said a decline from 21 percent to 18 percent in the 2010 would be consistent with the percentage decline from 1990 to 2000. That could be enough to affect redistricting in the next decade and make it even harder for rural legislators to hold their own with urban and suburban lawmakers.

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