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NM spending $3.5 million to boost census participation

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Gov. Michelle Lujan Grisham listens as Sergio Martinez, third from right, a U.S. Census Bureau partnership coordinator, and Kenneth Pin, a tribal partnership specialist, discuss preparations for the 2020 census at a Tuesday news conference in the Governor’s Office. (Eddie Moore/Journal)

Copyright © 2019 Albuquerque Journal

SANTA FE – New Mexico’s largely rural nature and its infrastructure limitations – including bumpy roads and spotty phone connections – have long made getting an accurate population count a difficult task.

But with the 2020 census approaching, Gov. Michelle Lujan Grisham is aiming to bolster New Mexicans’ participation in the once-per-decade count that is used to determine congressional representation, federal funding levels and more.

“We all know that if we don’t get this right, there are considerable consequences,” Lujan Grisham said during a Tuesday news conference in which she announced the creation of a state-level commission tasked with making sure residents are accurately counted, especially on tribal lands and in other hard-to-tally areas.

New Mexico gets roughly $7.8 billion annually in federal dollars from 16 programs, including money for Medicaid, food stamps, early childhood education and road repairs.

The total amount makes New Mexico the third-most reliant state in the nation on federal funding, in terms of percentage of total state revenue, according to a recent Tax Foundation study.

Given that backdrop, the first-term Democratic governor said it’s important New Mexico take steps to ensure it receives all the federal funding it’s entitled to – especially since an estimated 43 percent of the state’s nearly 2.1 million residents live in “hard to count” areas.

“If you reside here, we need you counted,” Lujan Grisham said.

Every household that is not counted in the census represents a loss of about $100,000 in federal funding for the state, said Robert Rhatigan, the associate director of the University of New Mexico Geospatial and Population Studies program, who is the state’s designated demographer for the coming census.

Lujan Grisham also expressed concern about the decision by the administration of President Donald Trump to add a citizenship question on the forms for the 2020 census. The U.S. Supreme Court held oral arguments Tuesday after multiple lawsuits were filed in an attempt to block the administration’s plans.

The governor said she believes the citizenship question could have a “chilling effect” and cause both citizens and noncitizens living in New Mexico to believe the census data might be misused.

“I think it’s unconstitutional to add that question,” Lujan Grisham added, though she said state officials will work to build confidence in participating in the census regardless of the Supreme Court’s ruling.

Meanwhile, the commission created Tuesday – officially called the Complete Count Commission – will work with immigrant rights groups and tribal representatives in an attempt to increase census participation rates in hard-to-count areas.

The commission will have $3.5 million available for such efforts – and for a census-targeted marketing campaign – that was included by the Legislature in a $7 billion budget bill. Lujan Grisham had requested even more money from lawmakers, and she suggested Tuesday that she might ask for more if the $3.5 million is ultimately deemed to be insufficient.

Cabinet secretaries, legislators, business leaders, tribal representatives and members of community-based organizations will be among those on the commission, which will have up to 40 members.

The group will begin meeting in the coming weeks and is supposed to provide its first report to Lujan Grisham in August, under the executive order she signed Tuesday.

Those appointed will not be paid, though anyone traveling more than 100 miles to attend meetings will get a per diem payment that’s intended as a reimbursement for some of their expenses.

The 2020 census will mark the first time that New Mexico residents – and those of other states – can respond online. Responses can also be entered via mail or by phone.

U.S. Census Bureau Partnership Coordinator Sergio Martinez said during Tuesday’s news conference that census workers will also conduct some in-person interviews, although he described such an approach as a last resort.

But Lujan Grisham pointed out that some New Mexico residents barely have access to phone service, let alone the internet.

During the last census that was conducted in 2010, New Mexico had the nation’s second-lowest participation rate, at 69 percent, said Finance and Administration Secretary Olivia Padilla-Jackson, who will head the new commission.

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