BOSTON Massachusetts has lost thousands in population over the last two years, according to newly released U.S. Census numbers.
But the numbers do more than signal an apparent exodus from the Bay State, say political watchdogs.
It puts Massachusetts in danger of losing yet another congressional seat after 2010, when the House of Representatives is reapportioned.
"It's discouraging," said Phil Johnston, chairman of the state Democratic Party. "It means we're losing political clout with the Congress, and it's not good."
Massachusetts currently holds 10 seats in the House, a body made up of 435 representatives. That number is divided up between the 50 states based on each state's population, as determined by the decennial Census count. That breaks down to more than 600,000 people per representative now.
Since 1920, when Massachusetts had 16 representatives, the state has seen a steady decline, down to the current 10 representatives. Although the state continues to grow slowly, it may not be growing fast enough to hang on to all 10 of its seats.
Some worry that the year-to-year estimates, conducted by the Census Bureau between decennial counts, indicate Massachusetts is moving backwards.
Massachusetts lost nearly 10,200 people from July 2003 to July 2004, according to the U.S. Census Bureau. It cast off another 8,600 by July 2005. According to the
Lose a seat
"It would be likely we would lose one (seat)," said U.S. Rep. Marty Meehan, D-Lowell. "But it's not out of the realm of possibility we could lose two."
U.S. Rep. John Olver, D-Amherst, who represents Western Massachusetts, including Berkshire County, was not available to comment late this week.
Watchdogs agree that the high cost of housing and a lack of high-level jobs, along with the uncontrollable factor of the weather, are responsible for driving residents, especially young people, out of the state.
A decrease in the state's clout at the congressional level could have serious ramifications beyond the actual number of representatives in Congress. Federal aid for various programs is distributed according to population, which means Massachusetts could start seeing fewer federal dollars, Meehan said.
One less seat also means less say in who becomes president of the United States.
"Assuming we lose a House seat, we lose a vote in the Electoral College, and someone else picks up a vote, (probably) in the south," said Johnston.
That means the more conservative southern states would have additional influence on the presidential pick.
Matt Wylie, executive director of the state's Republican Party, suggested Massachusetts legislators might have only themselves to blame.
"It's the will of the people," Wylie said, referring to a rollback of the state's income tax that voters supported in 2000, which the Legislature controlled by the Democratic Party has yet to perform.
"They ask for something and say this is what we expect to have happen. And when the (Democrats) don't do it, (the Democrats) say why are you leaving?"
Political analyst Matt Barron expects Western Massachusetts will take the biggest hit if the state loses a seat. Because of a concentration of political power around Boston and eastern Massachusetts, he wouldn't be surprised if the state legislators in charge of redrawing congressional lines every 10 years simply swallowed the extra seat into the district of U.S. Rep. John Olver. That district already eats up about 40 percent of the state geographically, Barron said.
And while Massachusetts has been fortunate in having built up seniority in the House of Representatives, with members like John Olver, D-Amherst, and Meehan, who sit on committees important to the country as a whole, losing a seat could mean losing a major player.
"What if John Olver says, 'I'm going to retire. I already have 40 percent of the state geographically, and I don't want to have Springfield,' " said Barron.
But not everyone following Massachusetts' trends and politics is ready to sound the alarm. Marc Draisen, executive director of the Metropolitan Area Planning Council, challenges the claim that the state is losing population.
He points out that the Census Bureau merely offers an estimate of the state's population between Census counts.
"It's not a count," Draisen said. "This is a formula that yields an estimate. (And) the decline, first of all, is extremely small. So it's important to realize the sky is not falling here."
The MAPC, which covers 164 cities and towns around eastern Massachusetts and which does not survey the entire state, plans to release population and employment projects in January that predict a slow growth over the next 25 years.
Draisen also argues that Massachusetts residents are difficult to count because of the high number of college students studying here who may still have their car registered in their home state and the large population of immigrants, who, after the terrorist attacks of Sept. 11, may not be making themselves readily available for a Census estimate.
Draisen admits a slow growth isn't necessarily enough to avoid losing a congressional seat, and he agrees that Massachusetts needs to correct problems regarding housing costs and job opportunities if it hopes to thrive.
"There are absolutely reasons for concern," he said. "But I want people to take (the Census estimate) with a bit of a grain of salt. Nobody counted anybody here."