After budget whiff, census advocates again pitch state funding to Senate Republicans

Census Director Robert M. Groves began Census Day 2010 by encouraging DC residents to return their census questionnaire. Flickr Commons

Despite impassioned pleas from good-government advocates, the General Assembly passed a state budget in June that doesn’t include a dime for the 2020 census — a once-a-decade inventory of the U.S. population.

But during a hearing Monday in front of the Senate Republican Policy Committee, advocates, experts, and government officials described the potential costs of an undercount of Pennsylvania’s estimated 12.8 million residents.

In May, members of Gov. Tom Wolf’s Census 2020 Complete Count Commission, with the Democrat’s backing, called on the Legislature to appropriate one dollar per Pennsylvanian in the budget for census outreach. Commissioners in attendance Monday renewed that call.

State Government Committee chairman Sen. Mike Folmer, R-Lebanon, told the Capital-Star that if “we need the money, I’ll advocate for it.” But first, he wants to figure out a price tag.

Every ten years, the U.S. Census Bureau seeks to capture a snapshot of the nation’s population, including who they are and where they live.

These numbers are important because they’re used to dole out federal dollars for everything from economic development to programs for seniors. 

A big change for the next count, which officially kicks off in April 2020, is an increased reliance on online reporting. The federal government hopes that inputting census information online will reduce costs and ease the process.

But as Barry Jenk, executive director of the Center for Rural Pennsylvania, testified Monday, the lack of rural broadband access could mar the count in parts of the commonwealth.

According to census data, 48 of Pennsylvania’s 67 counties are rural. While the Federal Communications Commission estimates that 95 percent of Pennsylvanians have access to high-speed broadband internet, a Penn State report from last month found median measured speeds to be much lower. 

Researchers also determined that “connectivity speeds were substantially slower in rural counties than in urban counties.”

People who study the census are similarly concerned about a potential undercount of black and Latinx people. 

In a study funded by the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation, the left-leaning Urban Institute estimated that black and Latinx communities in Pennsylvania could be undercounted by as much as 3.5 percent during the 2020 census. 

As the institute notes, census population data is used by the feds to assign funding for Medicaid, the Children’s Health Insurance Program, and foster and adoption care. The study also notes that young children are “historically undercounted.”

Despite Wolf advocating for $12.8 million in state funding for the census, the money was not included in his February budget ask and wasn’t part of the final deal in June. 

Republicans during the budget process said the count is a federal issue that should be funded by federal dollars.

Folmer added during Monday’s hearing that he wants to explore possible “existing avenues of notification that would be a zero-dollar cost to taxpayers to make sure that everyone is counted.”

Micah Sims, executive director of the good-government group Common Cause and a member of the Wolf’s census commission, said that local organizations will reach who they can in their communities.

But it’s “not a solution,” Sims told the Capital-Star. 

“We need to do that, and we need adequate funding. Forty-something organizations aren’t going to reach 12.8 million people,” he said. “We’re going to need PSAs, billboards, the ability to do digital ads.”

During the hearing, Norman Bristol Colon, executive director of the governor’s census commission, mentioned paid advertising as a use for government dollars.

Colon added that funding would also go to outreach campaigns for hard-to-reach individuals, such as seniors and children, as well as grants to public and private institutions to aid in the count. 

For example, money could go to a university to make sure away-from-home students are counted at their academic address.

Census data also dictates redistricting and reapportionment. Because the U.S. House is set at 435 members, a state can lose a congressional seat or seats if it loses population relative to other states.

Such is the case in Pennsylvania. Most experts peg the commonwealth as on track to lose one of its 18 congressional seats come 2021. 

Source: U.S. Census Bureau
Source: U.S. Census Bureau

Pennsylvania’s population has grown by just a tad under one percent since 2010, per census estimates. Other states’ populations have grown by more than ten percent during the same time period.

On Monday, Republicans seemed wary of ponying up money for the cause after Wolf unilaterally issued $90 million in bonds last week to help counties pay for new voting machines. The governor in early July vetoed a bill that tied voting machine funding approved by the Legislature to election changes, including the elimination of straight-ticketing voting. 

“At times, I feel like [Wolf] treats us like we’re potted plants,” Folmer quipped.

Folmer added that he wants census funding to stay a “purple” issue — with both red and blue support — unlike the voting machine bill.

 

On Monday, Wolf said he hadn’t talked to the Legislature about census funding since the budget passed. He did not directly answer a question about the possibility of funding census outreach without the General Assembly, but did say the state “really needs to get an honest count. That’s something I don’t think should be a partisan issue.”

Some Democratic lawmakers had earlier expressed frustration with the lack of census funding.

“There’s very little more important to the state for the next ten years than the census,” Rep. Mike Schlossberg, D-Lehigh, told the Capital-Star after the budget was first considered in the House.

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