Colorado Springs officials work to protect city in state’s redistricting plan

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Local officials are joining forces in an effort to present a cohesive redistricting plan to the state’s redistricting commission later this month. Last week, the El Paso County Commissioners were the latest group to unanimously endorse a resolution that would keep El Paso County as one voting district.

As regulated by law, the U.S. Census Bureau is required to take a census reading every 10 years and gather a variety of data including population trends. This data is then used to determine if a state needs to reapportion its Congressional and Legislative seats. Since Colorado’s population grew over the past decade, it qualifies for a 7th U.S. Congressional seat in the House of Representatives. Each seat represents about 660,000 residents with El Paso County (District 5) being represented by R-Joel Hefley.

State House Representatives serve about 66,000 residents. Some representatives are seeking to split El Paso County in half with the northern portion of the county to be included in Douglas County congressional district and the southern portion included in Pueblo County’s congressional district. El Paso County grew from 397,000 residents to 517,000 residents this past decade and this split is an area of contention for some local officials. The problem it would create, said Jeff Crank, vice president for governmental affairs at the Colorado Springs Chamber of Commerce, is that it puts the five local military installations — Ft. Carson, the United States Air Force Academy, peterson Air Force Base, Cheyenne Mountain Air Station and Schriever Air Force Base — at a disadvantage. With an annual $2.47 billion economic impact on the community, El Paso County is ranked third in the nation for military retirees and is home to 22,796 of the state’s 45,000 retired military personnel. These large numbers allow local Congressional representatives to be appointed to the House Armed Services Committee. This committee, in turn, is responsible for overseeing military base closures.

“If we lose this fight and they split this county, we probably don’t stand a good chance of getting either of the members of Congress who represent El Paso County on the Armed Services Committee,” said Crank. “No matter how you split it, you split the number of retirees and you split the number of installations. It puts us in a weakened state to keep Ft. Carson or any other military installation off the base closure list.”

Ft. Carson is an army maneuver site that generates an economic impact of nearly $1.2 billion annually in this region. It is the largest area employer with 3,000 civilian jobs and 19,000 military personnel. It is also the state’s second largest employer.

Another fight the county would have on its hands, said Crank, is receiving federal highway dollars. If El Paso County were to split, the population would also split. Since about 660,000 voters are included in a Congressional district — and about 250,000 El Paso County voters would be included in another district — that Congressional representative’s priorities might not lean toward the needs of El Paso County. For example, if southern El Paso County were to be included in Pueblo County, this region might not see an expansion of Interstate 25 or Powers Boulevard.

Of the eight House seats at the state level that represents about 66,000 people each, seven are completely within El Paso County. Republican Lynn Hefley’s district covers the northern part of El Paso County, but also parts of Douglas County. With the growth in Douglas County, El Paso County might lose some of its voting power by being reconfigured into Douglas County. This concerns Crank as well since it could take voting power away from El Paso County at a local level.

“A county that has grown by 100,000 people over the last decade shouldn’t lose power … we should gain some power in that process,” said Crank, who is pulling together as many resources as possible to present to the state’s reapportionment committee. With signatures from the county, Mayor Mary Lou Makepeace, the NAACP, the Chamber of Commerce and other area town mayors, he will present a resolution to Congressional redistricting subcommittee co-chair R-Joseph Stengel, who represents Arapahoe and Jefferson Counties.

Pushing for the El Paso County split is state Sen. Bill Thiebaut-D who represents Pueblo County. There is speculation that Thiebaut is interested in running for the open 7th Congressional seat, said Crank, and these additional votes would not only add to his Congressional district, but would dilute the power of the Republican vote.

The state’s reapportionment committee will meet September 25. If the decision is made to split El Paso County in half, Crank expects it to be challenged in court. A final decision will need to be made before the November, 2002 elections. Meanwhile, the U.S. Congress will meet in special session beginning later this month and a decision at the national level should be reached by the end of October.

Other economic impacts to the community, said Crank, would include the break-up of economic clusters such as the high technology market and sports industry.

“If you had a Congressman who represented half of El Paso County and Pueblo and (surrounding) counties, you probably aren’t going to be up to speed about the unique issues in this part of the county,” said Crank. “Sports and military and high technology are not in Pueblo.

“This next year, there’s $140 million in military construction coming into El Paso County because our Congressman (Hefley) worked with the Pentagon to get (road construction) funding in the bill. If you don’t get those roads built, do businesses come here … do they move here … do they stay here?”