March 15, 2001 11:00 pm

By Ray Linker

Observer Staff Writer

Eastern Oregon legislative districts will become larger as the state Legislature tackles redistricting.

It is highly probable that part of Baker County will be added to both State Senate District 29 and State House District 58, said Senate Majority Leader David Nelson, R-Pendleton.

The pattern of growth in the state has been from the north to the south and from the east to the west, he said.

It looks like districts involving Union, Umatilla and Wallowa counties may be expanded to include 5,000 more people. So, we may be looking at going into Baker County, Nelson said.

Ideally, each redrawn House district would have just over 57,000 people and Senate districts double that, or 114,000.

Nelsons Senate District 29 now includes all of Wallowa, Union and Umatilla counties (now a total of 92,306 people) and a strip across the northern part of Morrow County for a total of 110,000. That would put him about 4,000 shy of the target amount the redistricting committee wants.

So, his district could be extended into Baker County, which now has 16,741 residents

House District 58, served by Rep. Mark Simmons, R-Elgin, includes all of Union and Wallowa counties (now totalling 31,756) and the eastern part of Umatilla county, excluding Pendleton. Thats a total of 50,547, which is 6,476 short of the target of 57,023.

Each Senate district includes two House districts.

Baker County is now in the expansive Senate District 28 and House District 59.

Redistricting is required every 10 years, based on the census results showing growth and related shifts in the population.

The 2000 census showed the states population at 3,421,399, an increase of more than 547,000 from the 1990 census.

Current boundary lines will require significant changes to reflect this added population, Nelson said.

Just how the districts are finally drawn will be determined in part where it starts, he said. Districts to the west will be more involved since thats where the main growth is. But what happens in Eastern Oregon will set the tone for the rest of the state. I think the main battlegrounds will be in the area between Springfield and Portland.

While Nelson and Senate President Gene Derfler, R-Salem, are trying to develop a unified front and work with such Democratic leaders as Kate Brown of Portland, Nelson said he expects the issue to wind up in court.

In 1981 and in 1991 it ended up in court and it looks as if it will this time, too, Nelson said.

The Legislature and governor must complete the plan by June 30, as required by the state constitution. Republicans want to get the plan done by June 1, he said.

A state Supreme Court review of the plan is nearly certain since any voter can ask the court to consider the issue.

The lawmakers redistricting staff is aiming for new districts to have no more than a 1 percent variance from the ideal number, said Gary Wilhelms, whos working on the task for the House GOP caucus.

Among the congressional districts, no changes are anticipated in the 2nd District boundaries, which includes all 18 counties east of the Cascades, plus all of Jackson County and most of Josephine County.