We all knew this was coming. The 2010 Census revealed that Baltimore continued to lose population over the past 10 years — albeit at a slower pace than in previous decades — and with Maryland's decennial redistricting process under way, it seems likely that the city's representation in Annapolis will again be diminished. The wailing and gnashing of teeth in response to that prospect has begun.
Before the doomsayers get carried away, a little perspective is perhaps in order. There are really two problems involved here: long-running demographic and societal factors affecting the city's population, and a judge's somewhat arbitrary decision that Baltimore, alone among Maryland's 24 jurisdictions, should have no legislative districts that cross jurisdictional lines. Both of those problems can eventually be corrected.
First, the demographics. Although Baltimore lost population in the 2000s, the challenges that have driven population loss in Baltimore have all begun to turn around in recent years. Traditionally, the problems most harmful to Baltimore's reputation as a place to live and raise children have consisted of a three-legged stool: crime, schools and taxes. The city is more dangerous, its schools lower-performing and its property tax rate much high than in surrounding jurisdictions. Under such circumstances, it stands to reason that only those families with an extraordinary commitment to urban living are likely to move to or stay in Baltimore.
Fortunately for the city's long-term prospects, all three factors are moving in a favorable direction. Though crime is still a huge problem, especially in the city's poorer neighborhoods, crime rates are down almost across the board under the leadership of Police Commissioner Frederick H. Bealefeld III. Despite recently reported setbacks in standardized test results, the school system is much improved under CEO Andrés Alonso — whether one considers dropout and graduation rates, the new teacher contract, or even (measuring from the beginning of Mr. Alonso's tenure) those much-maligned test scores. As for property taxes, they have yet to be reduced by more than token amounts, but the fact that this issue has caught fire with the public and become a key issue driving the current mayoral race ensures that taxes will remain on the front burner, whoever wins.
All of this suggests that population loss, however painful it is today, is not an inevitable part of Baltimore's future. Indeed, a Downtown Partnership of Baltimore study found that the downtown population is already on the rise. Who knows; 10 years hence, the pendulum may well be swinging in the city's direction again.
Now, what about that map? In 2002, Court of Appeals Chief Judge Robert M. Bell threw out a map approved by the General Assembly with 10 districts that included parts of Baltimore. He drew a new map enclosing all Baltimore's districts within the city; this dropped the number to six. If Judge Bell's logic is retained, the number of city districts would in all likelihood drop from six to five and its overall number of senators and delegates from 24 to 20.
But there is no special reason why Baltimore, alone in Maryland, should be hemmed in in this way. If confining legislators to a single jurisdiction is a virtue, the practice should be universally upheld, and the map rewritten to reflect that principle.
We wouldn't recommend doing that, though. There is a case to be made that something is gained when a district crosses jurisdictional lines. For one thing, it forces the legislators who represent that district to think more broadly about the needs of a wider and more diverse group of constituents.
Baltimore is Maryland's largest city and in many ways its most important place — culturally, economically and historically. It is vital that the city continue to send a substantial delegation to represent its interests in Annapolis. State mapmakers should think creatively about how to achieve that goal as they set about the task with which they have been entrusted.