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About a year after George Washington was elected President, Congress decided that one of the country’s first orders of business was finding out just how many lived here.
It declared that Aug. 2, 1790, would be Census Day, and those in charge of counting were called upon to include not only the original 13 colonies but also several other districts that would later become states, including Kentucky. What the numbers showed is that, just 15 years after Daniel Boone blazed the Wilderness Road through Cumberland Gap, 74,000 people were already calling Kentucky home.
It’s difficult now to think of the Commonwealth as part of the West, but that was the role our state played in those early years as more citizens looked at the land and opportunity offered here.
By the end of the Civil War, however, that began to change as settlers kept moving the frontier toward the Pacific Ocean. The Commonwealth became more of a starting point rather than a destination; between 1870 and 1970, in fact, Kentucky saw far more move out than move in, about 1.7 million altogether. This out-migration trend peaked in the 1940s and 1950s, but began reversing itself in the 1970s.
The latest Census figures show Kentucky now has about 4.34 million people, or nearly 60 times as many as there were during that first count 220 years ago. We’ve added nearly 300,000 people since 2000, a 7.4 percent increase.
That growth is not as high as we saw in the 1990s and certainly not in the 1970s, when the percentage was almost twice as much, but the past decade was still one of Kentucky’s faster-growing when compared to others during the past century.
Most of Kentucky’s 120 counties grew during the past decade, with four of them now 30 to 45 percent larger than they were in 2000. Another eight grew by least 15 percent. At the other end of the spectrum, 36 counties lost population, with 10 of them now five to 14 percent smaller.
In addition to telling us more about ourselves, the Census is also critical to re-aligning districts for elected office.
It may not be widely known, but the size of Congress is not fixed in the U.S. Constitution. While our Founding Fathers decided that each state should have two senators, it did not establish a limit for the U.S. House of Representatives. In fact, that chamber grew regularly until a century ago, when a 1911 law set the figure at the current 435.
Kentucky had 11 seats in the U.S. House at that time, but as other states grew, our numbers diminished. We had nine for a couple of decades around the Great Depression and World War II, and then eight in the 1950s, and seven until we lost one following the 1990 Census.
Later this year, the General Assembly will begin taking a closer look at how those six Congressional districts should be drawn, as well as the 100 districts in the Kentucky House of Representatives and the 38 in the state Senate.
The U.S. Constitution requires the congressional districts to be nearly equal, but there is more leeway in drawing state legislative districts. The goal is to keep them within five percent of the target population.
For the state seats, it may seem like an easy 138-piece puzzle, but there are numerous challenges when it comes to deciding how each piece should look. That’s especially true in those areas where a significant amount of population was gained or lost. Meeting other legal requirements while trying to keep as many counties as intact as possible adds to the difficulty when it comes to finding the right balance.
When these plans will be formally voted on by the General Assembly is also up in the air, but in 2002, legislators approved them in the opening weeks of that year’s legislative session.
At the same time my colleagues and I are doing this, we also will be laying the groundwork for the state’s next two-year budget. In short, this coming winter promises to be a busy time.
Rick Rand, D-Bedford, represents the 47th House District in the Kentucky General Assembly. He may be reached by writing to Room 351C, Capitol Annex, 702 Capitol Avenue, Frankfort, KY 40601, or leave a message at (800) 372-7181.