Saving a seat in the Big Horn Basin

Posted 7/14/11

“We would like the committee to consider keeping the Basin whole,” said Rep. Lorraine Quarberg, R-Thermopolis, who represents Hot Springs and parts of south Big Horn County.

Sen. Hank Coe, R-Cody, also asked the committee to keep the seat in …

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Saving a seat in the Big Horn Basin


Keep the Big Horn Basin whole.

That was the message local legislators conveyed to the Joint Corporations, Elections and Political Subdivisions during a hearing held in Powell Tuesday morning in an effort to keep the Big Horn Basin from losing a seat in the Legislature due to reapportionment.

“We would like the committee to consider keeping the Basin whole,” said Rep. Lorraine Quarberg, R-Thermopolis, who represents Hot Springs and parts of south Big Horn County.

Sen. Hank Coe, R-Cody, also asked the committee to keep the seat in the Basin. He told the committee that the four counties in the Big Horn Basin produce 39 percent of the oil produced in Wyoming, and they have agriculture interests in common. In addition, the entire Basin is part of a proposed Resource Management Plan by the Bureau of Land Management, which could have a major impact on jobs and development. He also noted that geography tends to isolate the Basin from the rest of Wyoming.

“The Big Horn Basin is a unique place,” Coe told the committee, and speaking for the Park County representatives, he added, “We’re working for the whole Basin, not just Park County.”

Committee member Sen. Charles Scott, R-Casper, agreed with Coe that the Basin is a “logical region,” but said the region was 300 to 400 hundred people short of requiring the six House Districts it presently comprises, based on population figures and guidelines set by the courts — and that would only bring the districts to the bare minimum size.

To maintain the one-man, one-vote standard set by the courts, the ideal House district in the state should have 9,394 residents, and the maximum variance from that figure would be 10 percent between the highest and lowest district statewide, meaning each district must be within 5 percent of that ideal, whether above or below.

While the 5 percent deviation is acceptable, committee members would prefer the deviation be as small as possible. What local legislators were asking is that the committee accept deviations close to 5 percent below the ideal for Big Horn Basin districts, and suggested they might ask for an exception to the 5 percent standard.

Committee members said they would be very reluctant to grant such an exception, and Scott said doing so likely would bring a lawsuit challenging the reapportionment.

Of the six districts in the Basin, only District 25, represented by Rep. Dave Bonner, R-Powell, (publisher of the Tribune) is within the 5 percent margin. House District 50, represented by Rep. Pat Childers, R-Cody, is 6.75 percent above the ideal and all the rest are below, ranging from 5.89 percent in District 26, represented by Rep. Elaine Harvey, R-Lovell, to nearly 16 percent in District 24, represented by Quarberg.

To address that shortfall, reapportionment will have to draw population from outside the Big Horn Basin, even though the Legislature would prefer to consider significant geographical features, such as mountains, when redrawing districts.

Quarberg presented a plan for reapportionment in the Basin that would include two Fremont County election districts into the population base. The two districts, which would include the towns of Shoshoni and Lysite, would add more than 700 people and enable the districts in the Basin to be redrawn equitably, although they still would be below the ideal.

Quarberg said the drawing from the Shoshoni area is the most practical way to add population to the Basin. The only other options are to reach across the Big Horn Mountains to Sheridan or Johnson counties, or to a northern Teton County area that includes a small number of people living in Yellowstone Park, due to the requirement that Legislative districts be contiguous.

Even with the addition of the Fremont County voters, however, districts in the Basin would still be close to the 5 percent deviation from the ideal.

Committee members generally accepted Quarberg’s efforts positively, but cautioned that it might not resolve the problem.

“This is an example of why local people should develop these plans,” Scott said. “But having said that, we have to live within the court limits.”

Sen. Cale Case, R-Lander, the co-chairman of the committee, complimented Quarberg on her work, but said “the devil is in the details.”

Referring to the Legislature’s other principles for reapportionment, Case said, “When you look at census blocks, which you can’t divide, and election districts, which you shouldn’t divide, this might not work.”

Census blocks are the smallest units used in taking the national census. In towns and cities, they are typically city blocks or neighborhoods. In rural areas, they are much larger, and a large majority of them have no population.

Case also noted that Quarberg’s plan would have people living within 10 miles of Riverton in the same district as people in south Big Horn County, possibly violating another of the Legislature’s principles, that districts reflect a community of interest.

The community of interest principle also brought an objection from Jack Turnell of Meeteetse because Quarberg’s plan pulls the Meeteetse area into her district.

“I’ve nothing against Thermopolis, but people in Meeteetse don’t know people in Thermop,” Turnell said. “We do 90 percent of our business with Powell, Cody and Lovell. That’s our center.”

Turnell added Meeteetse’s connection with Northwest College and said he felt the area would be better represented by being included in Park County.

In later testimony responding to Turnell’s objections, Bonner, Harvey and Childers all emphasized that they work together for the good of the entire Basin, not soley for their districts.

Citing the fact that the Willwood area, part of the Powell community, is represented by Harvey, Bonner said, “I don’t check the address of a constituent who contacts me. We are all working together to make things work for the Big Horn Basin.”

Harvey echoed Bonner, noting her district splits the town of Frannie, Big Horn County School District No. 1 and the closely related towns of Basin and Greybull, who share a hospital district, as well as Willwood and other areas tied to Powell and Park County. But Harvey urged the committee to keep the representation of the four counties within the Basin.

“Don’t break up the Big Horn Basin,” Harvey said. “It’s important to keep us together.”

Big Horn County Commissioner Keith Grant joined area legislators in defending the request that the Legislature accept close to the maximum deviation below the ideal in redistricting the Basin. Grant spoke of predictions of an oil boom in the Basin, based on new technologies in the next three to five years, which would increase population.

Rep. Mike Greear, R-Worland, spoke of an effort to develop agriculture land West of the Big Horn River in northern Washakie and southern Big Horn counties that could bring more population growth.

Childers said the Basin’s representatives would continue discussions and will have public meetings and hearings in an effort to develop an acceptable plan for keeping the Basin’s representation.

“It’s important that the people participate,” Childers said. “We’ll give you some sound data.”

In response to a question from Quarberg, Case said the committee will meet again in August, but would not be taking action on a plan to present to the Legislature. Scott, however, said he would be prepared to make motions with regard to making part of Fremont County available, depending what he sees in Quarberg’s proposal.

Both Scott and Case praised the Big Horn Basin delegation’s efforts to address the situation, and Case recommended that Quarberg make use of the resources available from the Legislature’s staff.

The committee held another meeting in Worland Tuesday evening.