Pennsylvania Population Lag Costs State a US House Seat

A century-long slide in Pennsylvania's congressional clout will continue into the 2020s, and the loss of another U.S. House seat could mean federal funding decreases for programs like Medicaid and transportation

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For Pennsylvania, the official word that its population growth continues to lag behind the nation’s marks the 10th consecutive decade the Keystone State has lost clout in Congress and presidential contests, even as it rose a notch to the fifth-most populous state.

The state has become one of the most important presidential battlegrounds but will have one fewer electoral vote to offer candidates in the next election — from 20 to 19 — and it will have one less representative in the U.S. House, setting up the usually bare-knuckled political exercise of redrawing district boundaries.

The U.S. Census confirmed Pennsylvania's loss of a seat Monday, and released figures showing that Pennsylvania's resident population crept to just over 13 million last year — 13,002,700 to be precise — from 12.7 million in 2010, a gain of 2.4%.

Pennsylvania grew more slowly than it did the prior decade, when it grew 3.4%, and far behind the nation's population growth of 7.4%. Still, with Illinois' loss of population, Pennsylvania rose to the nation's fifth-most populous state, up from sixth a decade ago. It remains behind California, Texas, Florida and New York.

Norman Bristol Colon, who ran Gov. Tom Wolf's Census 2020 Complete Count Commission, said Pennsylvania's growth was stronger than anticipated two years ago, in part because of people moving from Puerto Rico.

“Pennsylvania became the second state where Puerto Ricans were moving,” Bristol Colon said. “Florida was No. 1, and Pennsylvania was No. 2.”

Still, the lagging population growth relative to other states also could mean Pennsylvania will see a reduced share of federal money for Medicaid, social programs and infrastructure.

That's particularly bad news for the state's growing transportation needs amid a deepening stalemate over financing its highways and public transit.

Gov. Tom Wolf has proposed phasing out Pennsylvania’s gasoline tax, the second-highest in the nation, as his Department of Transportation looks to impose tolls on up to nine major bridges to help close a construction and maintenance budget gap that is roughly $8 billion per year — and growing.

That gap is more than half the $15 billion that is needed annually to keep Pennsylvania’s highways and bridges in good condition and ease major traffic bottlenecks, PennDOT says.

While Pennsylvania will likely remain a valuable jewel for presidential nominees, it will lose some of its shine to Sun Belt states.

In Congress, Pennsylvania will have 17 U.S. House seats for 18 incumbent U.S. House members when next year’s elections roll around. That raises the question of whose district will disappear and whose political career could be upended.

A new map of districts must win approval from the Republican-controlled Legislature and Gov. Tom Wolf, a Democrat, and the districts they draw could have a dramatic effect on the political careers of the state’s 18 U.S. House members.

If each of the 18 wants to run for another term in Congress, two of them will have to run against each other.

A new map is necessary before it is time to circulate petitions to get on next year’s primary ballot. If Wolf and lawmakers can’t agree on one, the state Supreme Court will do it for them.

What makes Republicans nervous is that the state Supreme Court has a 5-2 Democratic majority. The most practical place to eliminate a district is where the population is stagnant: largely Republican areas in northern and western Pennsylvania.

Redistricting data necessary to draw districts that are equal in population — they include counts of population by race, Hispanic origin, gender and housing at geographic levels as small as neighborhoods — isn’t expected to be released by the Census Bureau until late August, at the earliest.

Of particular interest is speculation that a member of Congress — if not several — will run for higher office and thus reduce the number of incumbents lobbying state lawmakers for favorable district lines.

In next year’s election, Pennsylvania has two attractive lures for ambitious politicians: an open U.S. Senate seat and an open governor’s office, with Wolf termed out.

So far, second-term Republican Rep. Dan Meuser of Luzerne County has said he is interested in running for governor, while Democratic Reps. Conor Lamb of Allegheny County and Chrissy Houlahan of Chester County have said they’ll consider running for U.S. Senate.


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