Utah lawmakers say they should have funded census count efforts, so they’re looking at providing up to $1M

Legislative leaders say they made a mistake by not appropriating any money to help urge all Utahns to participate in next year’s census — and now are trying to provide $500,000 to $1 million for the effort. They might even seek a special session to approve it.

“We kind of missed it during the session,” said Senate Majority Leader Evan Vickers, R-Cedar City, adding there’s a clear need to ensure Utah receives fair treatment in battles for federal funding and congressional representation that are based on population counts.

While Utah had provided nothing for such education and outreach, other states did. California, for example, came up with $156 million.

“The census does affect federal funds, so obviously we want to make sure it’s completely accurate,” Vickers said. “The bottom line is we are going to have to be out in front and proactively making sure that people do fill it out.”

During this year’s legislative session, Gov. Gary Herbert had requested $70,000 for online ads to urge census participation, and Rep. Karen Kwan, D-Murray, sought $500,000 to help local governments reach out to hard-to-count groups, including minorities and new immigrants.

But lawmakers initially chose to depend only on federal efforts, supplemented by local volunteers.

Last week, Salt Lake County Mayor Jenny Wilson warned that Utah could be deeply hurt by possible census undercounts unless it comes up with more money, and noted her county is providing $240,000 for education and outreach.

Vickers said leaders now realize some outreach money is needed because of new challenges with the upcoming census. For example, it will be the first census to ask people to respond primarily through the internet — after receiving postcard invitations to do so.

“There obviously is going to be people who don’t have access to the internet, or elderly people who would not prefer to fill it out on the internet,” Vickers said, and the state needs to help them learn about alternatives such as replying by phone or written forms.

(Rick Egan | Tribune file photo) Senate Majority Leader Evan Vickers.

Also, Utah Latino leaders say the state’s 80,000 to 100,000 undocumented immigrants — and perhaps citizens in their extended families — could skip the census over worry about deportation if they were to answer a proposed question about citizenship status of household members. The U.S. Supreme Court is expected to rule next month whether that question will be allowed legally.

Utah has many other people in traditionally hard-to-count groups, including minorities, people on Indian reservations who have no street addresses, refugees, new-growth areas where addresses may not be in government databases, and even families with young children.

“We want to make sure that all people get counted,” Vickers said.

But timing for providing more money to pay for these efforts is a problem. The next general session of the Legislature is not until January and it ends in March — exactly when the census begins.

Evan Curtis, co-chairman of the state’s Complete Count Committee, said money is really needed far in advance of that to buy social media ads, print materials to send with “trusted voice” groups working with minorities and immigrants, and perhaps to buy radio and TV ads targeting hard-to-reach groups.

Vickers agrees. “The first thing we’ll do is sweep corners” in the budget to see “if there are funds in accounts that match up with that type of advocacy” and use it.

“If there’s not, then we may consider it during a special session,” Vickers said.

Utah has learned some hard lessons about not counting all its residents. In the 2000 census, the state just missed gaining a fourth U.S. House of Representatives seat by 80 people (which instead went to North Carolina). It was another decade before the Beehive State gained that extra House seat.

Vickers noted that Utah is not expected to be close to gaining a fifth congressional seat next year. “But we could be in 2030,” he said.