Representing Rural in State Legislatures

[imgbelt img=CO_house_district65.jpg] As the percentage of Americans who live in rural areas declines, rural legislators worry about the attention their issues are receiving. In the long run, they say, taking care of rural communities helps support cities, too.

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Four states to the east, Senator Richard Young (D) of Indiana also farms, but he’s always had a second job to afford raising his family in the country. His parents’ farm house has been renovated and converted into a vacation rental, where guests can feed the goats and gather chicken eggs. “It gives the kids a little bit of an opportunity to rebuild that relationship with the land,” says Young.

A Loss of Clout

Young’s district encompasses parts of six counties in the rolling hills of southern Indiana. It’s nowhere near the size of Sonnenberg’s, yet the challenges are similar, starting with rural America’s diminished clout in legislatures. As farm communities shrink, many who represent them feel they must fight for a seat at the table in what they believe are urban-centric statehouses.

 

The change has been felt in legislatures, as long-serving, rural leaders retire, often replaced by freshmen who lack legislative memory or urban lawmakers who lack rural empathy.

In small-town America, where politics have always been more personal, the changes are not well-received. Last November, people in Sonnenberg’s district felt so estranged from government that many voted to take the first steps to secede from Colorado to form a 51st state. The initiative failed, but not by that much—five counties voted in favor and six counties against—attracting significant national attention. Sonnenberg said the vote was what he expected. “A number of people were concerned that this wasn’t the best avenue to spend our money. I think the goal was met—to send a message that rural Colorado should not be ignored, especially since it holds the top two economic drivers in the state in energy and agriculture.”

Food and Energy: The Great Equalizers

In many states, rural lawmakers have formed caucuses to leverage their influence. But in Indiana, at least, the group didn’t organize until 2009 and is still feeling its way, says Young, a founder. “Although we have a lot of rural legislators, we don’t coordinate as well as the urban legislators from Lake County, Indianapolis and Evansville. Whether they are Democrats or Republicans, they come together and form a group.”

The Indiana caucus has focused its efforts on increasing high-speed Internet, maintaining rural roads and attracting more health care providers.

Young is sponsoring a bill that would add Indiana to the roster of states that legalize the production of industrial hemp. His district encompasses all or part of six counties in southern Indiana, the biggest of which has about 20,000 people. Over the past 25 years, his district has gained population but, he says, “it’s way under what it was in 1930. The Depression had a big impact on southern Indiana.”

Sonnenberg and Young point out that rural America produces much of the nation’s oil, gas and coal and provides resources such as timber, minerals and clean water. Farmers feed the nation and help feed the world. Farm products sold in the United States in 2012 totaled $394.6 billion, up 33 percent from 2007, and exports set a record of $140.9 billion in FY 2013. In the past five years, U.S. agricultural exports have been the strongest in history.

Sonnenberg believes these numbers deserve more attention. “Agriculture is the state’s second-largest industry. It makes it hard for me to understand why [urban dwellers] don’t realize the issues that matter to people out here are so important.”

Rural Concerns

Sonnenberg ticks off a litany of issues crucial not just to Colorado farmers, but many rural regions.

Water: “The No. 1 issue out here in eastern Colorado is always water. As people move to the Front Range and cities need more water, there’s only one place for them to get it and that’s from agriculture. Until we figure out how to store water so both the city and agriculture can have the water they need, we’re headed down a path I think will hurt rural Colorado.”

magazine, where it first appeared.

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