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'It’s not really practical': Arizona Republican wants to go from 30 House districts to 90

When the next Arizona Independent Redistricting Commission convenes in 2031, it might be drawing 90 single-member House districts instead of 30 districts with two representatives apiece, at least if Sen. J.D. Mesnard has any say over it.

For the second consecutive year, Mesnard has introduced a proposed ballot referral that would dramatically alter the makeup of the state's House of Representatives. Senate Concurrent Resolution 1012 would ask voters to amend the Arizona Constitution so that each of the state's 30 Senate districts would be split into three separate House districts.

Each of the 30 districts now has two House representatives who serve at-large. Mesnard's plan would have 90 House members who each represent their own district.

At about 238,000 people apiece, Arizona's legislative districts are among the most populous in the country. House members here represent more constituents than any other state except California, with more than five times Arizona's population. Arizona is also one of only a few states in which multiple House members are elected at-large in their districts.

For Mesnard, a Chandler Republican, the principle is that the government closest to the people governs best. And the fewer constituents you have, the closer you are to them.

"At some point, you've got to acknowledge we're a fast-growing state and our House is tiny," he said. "You reach a point where it's not really practical to be representing that many people."

If voters were to approve the measure, the Arizona House wouldn't expand until after the 2030 census, when the state will again redraw its district boundaries.

Mesnard said the same principle applies to other representative political bodies. He has another bill, Senate Bill 1277, that would add seats to the boards of supervisors in Arizona's largest counties. Counties with 1-3 million residents, a category that includes only Pima County, would increase their boards from five to seven members. Counties with 3 million or more people, which would only apply to Maricopa County, would have nine-member boards of supervisors. And Mesnard argued that the U.S. House of Representatives should have more members, as well.

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The idea of reducing the massive population of Arizona's legislative districts, at least on the House side, has been around for a while, but has never gotten much traction at the Capitol.

Mesnard isn't alone: Sen. T.J. Shope has for years sponsored proposals to split each Senate district into two distinct House districts. They wouldn't have increased the size of the chamber, but would have given each House member a distinct district.

Shope, a Coolidge Republican, was never able to get a committee hearing for his proposal. Some years, the House speaker didn't even assign it to a committee. He chalked up the lack of interest largely to people's resistance to change a system they're familiar with, comparing it to opposition to a proposal he once sponsored that would have moved the primary election from August to May.

"I think all these kind of governance issues kind of fall into the same bag," Shope said. "People got elected the way that it is now and are hesitant to do anything different."

Last year was the first time a proposal to create single-member House districts saw any movement. The 2021 version of Mesnard's 90-district proposal was passed by the Senate Government Committee on a bipartisan 5-2 vote, with support and opposition coming from both sides of the aisle.

Unfortunately for Mesnard, his proposal was also assigned to the Senate Appropriations Committee, where it never got a hearing. He said he got busy and forgot to talk with Sen. David Gowan, the committee's chairman, about having the bill heard.

This year, SCR1012 has only been assigned to the Government Committee, on which Mesnard serves. Sen. Kelly Townsend, who voted for last year's proposal, now chairs the committee. She told the Arizona Mirror that she's considering hearing the resolution, but that she needs to talk with Mesnard about it.

During last year's committee hearing, Mesnard sought to counter some of the criticisms he's heard of enlarging the legislature. While some simply don't want to see more legislators, he said it would result in better representation that's more responsive to voters. And he said he doesn't think expanding the size of the legislature is akin to enlarging government, which he defined as an increase in regulation or control.

He noted that the principle came up after the Constitutional Convention in 1787, when Antifederalists worried members of the U.S. House of Representatives would be too detached from the people they represented. James Madison sought to alleviate those fears with a proposed amendment he wanted to be part of the Bill of Rights that would have limited congressional districts to no more than 30,000 people.

"The larger your constituency, the poorer the representation. I mean, that's been a principle that goes all the way back to our founding, when those who were opposed to the Constitution's ratification balked at the idea that a member of the U.S. House of Representatives would represent a whopping 30,000 people," Mesnard told the Mirror. Congress approved the proposal but not enough states ratified it, making it one of two amendments recommended by Madison that fell short. Had it received congressional approval, it would have been the first amendment to the Constitution.

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Shope said more districts would also make it easier to comply with the redistricting requirements in the Arizona Constitution, mostly notably the requirement to respect "communities of interest," a broad term that encompasses any grouping of people with similar needs or concerns.

Sen. Juan Mendez, D-Tempe, supported the proposal in 2021, but had concerns. Primarily, he questioned whether having more lawmakers would hinder efforts to increase legislators' salary so that they're paid a living wage. Lawmakers' salaries have been set at $24,000 a year since 1998.

Mendez also questioned when the 2021 measure was considered whether he would have viewed the proposal more skeptically if he were still in the House. Mesnard noted that most of the current House members would be out of office by the time the chamber actually expanded for the 2032 election.

Then-Sen. Jamescita Peshlakai, D-Tuba City, said she kind of liked the bill, and that her district was the geographically largest in the state — the largest in the country, in fact, she said — but she wasn't completely sold, telling the committee last year, "I don't think creating more elected people, officials, is the answer."

One question that came up during last year's committee hearing is whether expanding the House to 90 members would require a new building.

Shope told the Mirror that it could be done, though lawmakers' offices and possibly committee hearing rooms would have to be moved to nearby buildings. Mesnard said it would be difficult, though the legislature would have a decade to figure it out before the House expanded to 90 members.

But the current Capitol is 60 years old, and, as Mesnard told the Senate Government Committee last year, "We're probably going to need a new building anyway."

The Capitol as it is now has fit more members in the past. For much of the 1950s and 1960s, the House had 80 members, topping out at 82 during the 1953-54 legislature. The House has been at 60 members since the 1966 election, when Arizona had to reorganize its districts to comply with the U.S. Supreme Court's landmark ruling requiring proportional representation in state legislative districts.

This report was first published by the Arizona Mirror.


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Jerod MacDonald-Evoy/Arizona Mirror