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A smaller Pinellas might not hurt clout in Tallahassee

Pinellas County is special in more ways than one.

In a state that grew by 3 million people in the past decade, Pinellas actually lost population.

The peninsula county that is home to the Tampa Bay Rays, the Salvador Dalí Museum, Fort De Soto Park and (can't resist) the original Hooters franchise was the only urban county in Florida to see its population drop since 2000. The only other county that lost population was Monroe in the Keys.

So if Interstate 275 flows a bit faster during rush hour, you know why. The county is largely built out, meaning it has run out of real estate for new subdivisions.

Pinellas didn't shrink much (by about 5,000 people, for a new total of nearly 917,000), but look around. Hillsborough attracted 230,000 newcomers in the past decade, and Pasco grew by 120,000.

Up the road, little Levy County attracted more newcomers (6,351) than Pinellas lost (4,953).

Now that legislators are approaching the serious stage of redrawing political district boundaries, that small population decline could have big implications.

Hillsborough and Pasco stand to get a little more representation; Pinellas stands to get less.

The first thing to know about reapportionment is that each district must contain the same number of people to the fullest extent possible, while the number of state House and Senate districts will stay the same for the 2012 election and beyond.

At present, based on 2000 data, Pinellas' population entitles it to 6.9 seats in the state House. Under the new population data, the county gets 5.85 House seats, or the loss of the equivalent of an entire seat. The county currently is entitled to 2.3 Senate seats, and in 2012 will have 1.9 Senate seats.

The new map, months away from finality, is sure to look very different, and in the end, Pinellas' political standing in the state Capitol might not change all that much.

Here's why: At present, eight House members represent parts of Pinellas and all but one (Republican Rep. Richard Corcoran) live in the county. Four of them have all-Pinellas districts.

Republican Rep. Jim Frishe of St. Pete, who's vacating his House seat to run for the Senate seat of the retiring Dennis Jones, says the population shift gives lawmakers a chance to "square off" House districts while respecting city boundaries as much as possible. "I don't think it will dim our influence," Frishe says.

Democratic Rep. Darryl Rouson of St. Petersburg has an oddly shaped district that includes parts of Hillsborough, Manatee and Sarasota counties. There's a reason: As the county's only African-American House member, Rouson or his successor must be assured of a minority access seat. The black voting-age population of Rouson's District 55 is 49.4 percent.

A little less representation in Tallahassee might not even be noticed, especially since two of the next three House speakers are from the region (Will Weatherford of Wesley Chapel and Corcoran of New Port Richey).

But with the possibility of fewer people looking out for them in the Capitol for the next decade, the people of Pinellas would be wise to realize that it matters more than ever who gets elected to office in 2012.

Steve Bousquet can be reached at bousquet@sptimes.com.

A smaller Pinellas might not hurt clout in Tallahassee 11/14/11 [Last modified: Monday, November 14, 2011 7:09pm]
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