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NM prepares for emergency census spending

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Sen. William Burt, R-Alamogordo, left, and Secretary of Finance and Administration Olivia Padilla-Jackson, right, present a bill Wednesday to fund efforts related to the census later this year. Behind them are Sen. William Sharer, R-Farmington, center, and Sen. Sander Rue, R-Albuquerque. (Eddie Moore/Albuquerque Journal)

Copyright © 2020 Albuquerque Journal

SANTA FE – New Mexico lawmakers raced Wednesday to approve new funding aimed at boosting participation in the 2020 census – a particular challenge in a rural state that relieves heavily on federal spending.

A bipartisan plan to make an extra $8 million available for census outreach won approval 39-0 in the Senate and now heads to the House.

Sen. William Burt, an Alamogordo Republican and co-sponsor of the emergency legislation, said it’s critical for New Mexico to target hard-to-count populations – such as people on military bases, working temporarily in oilfields or living in Native American communities.

The state, he said, stands to lose $780 million over the next 10 years for each percentage point its population is undercounted. Census information plays a role in federal funding for Medicaid, highways, education and other services, Burt said.

“This census is what we benchmark everything on for the next 10 years,” he said.

Sen. William Burt, R-Alamogordo, presents a bill to fund efforts related to the census later this year. The bill passed unanimously on the Senate Floor.(Eddie Moore/Albuquerque Journal)

State Demographer Robert Rhatigan of the University of New Mexico said people of color, children, Native Americans and rural residents tend to be undercounted in the census, which begins in March.

“We are historically the hardest state in the country to count,” Rhatigan said.

Wednesday’s legislation, Senate Bill 4, would declare an emergency – a move to free up the money quickly – and send $8 million to the state Department of Finance and Administration to bolster census outreach efforts.

The money would pay for public information campaigns and the hiring of workers who speak Spanish and native languages. It would also supplement local efforts in the state’s 33 counties.

The state’s Complete Count Commission is working with immigrant rights’ groups, tribal representatives and others to help reach traditionally undercounted populations.

Besides federal funding, the once-a-decade count also determines congressional and legislative representation.

Senate Minority Whip William Payne, R-Albuquerque, suggested the influx of oilfield and energy workers in the Permian Basin might lead to more legislative seats in southeastern New Mexico.

Senate Bill 4 is jointly sponsored by Burt, Democratic Sen. Liz Stefanics of Cerrillos and Democratic Rep. Susan Herrera of Embudo.

By April 1, New Mexicans can expect to have received an invitation to participate in the census. People can respond online, by phone or by mail.

Follow-up efforts for people who don’t respond will begin in May.

People who don’t receive a census card in the mail can also participate by responding to the questionnaire.

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