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Census important to Minnesota, communities

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ST. PAUL -- Federal law requires every American to fulfill only one civic duty, and it comes around just once a decade -- fill out the federal census form.

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Minnesota officials say the state's citizens should fulfill that duty, and for the sake of the state they should only complete a census document delivered to their Minnesota address.

In essence, the 2010 census is a battle among a dozen states to maintain, or expand, their congressional representation. Minnesota is in the middle of that battle and could lose one of its eight U.S. House seats after all Americans are counted.

With the Constitution requiring equal representation, when the population is tallied once every 10 years states rapidly gaining population may gain seats, and thus power, in the U.S. House while those not growing as fast, or losing people, could drop seats.

Minnesota is on the bubble. As estimates stand now, Minnesota would lose one of its eight House seats, but figures are so close that even a few more people counted in the census could make a difference.

So Minnesota officials are doing their best to make sure that every last Minnesotan is counted in the official count next April 1.

That means they are asking every Minnesota snowbird, spending the cold winter in Arizona, Texas, Florida or other warm locale, to fill out a Minnesota census form, not one where they call home only during a few months.

"Go, enjoy," Minnesota State Demographer Tom Gillaspy said to snowbirds. "When you are done there, don't forget to fill out your (Minnesota) census form."

South Carolina and Nevada are among warm-weather states that plan campaigns to influence snowbirds to fill out census forms while there, but Gillaspy said that the House seat and millions of federal dollars could be lost to Minnesota if too many fill out forms in other states.

The state could lose federal funds because they often are doled out based on population.

An unexpected ally could help Minnesota retain its House seat and keep some of those federal dollars that otherwise could head south. The economic recession actually could help Minnesota because it has slowed migration to warmers states, Gillaspy said.

Some of that impact may be clearer on Tuesday, when the federal Census Bureau releases new population estimates. But those are only estimates, and state officials will not know the recession's true impact for another year, when official census figures are released.

Not only does state government stand to gain if everyone is counted next spring, local governments do, too.

"It is a pretty big deal in some communities," said Laura Harris of the League of Minnesota Cities.

Just 29 percent of northwest Minnesota's Mahnomen County responded to the 2000 census, and in the northeast's Cook County, not even 40 percent returned census forms. In many northern Minnesota counties, fewer than half of their residents completed census forms.

That means their population was under counted and they lost state and federal funds.

Harris said many programs split up funds based on population, most notably local government aid, where state funds are sent to cities that cannot pay for adequate services by themselves. More than $400 million is sent to cities this time of year and again in the summer.

More than $400 billion in federal funds spent across the country are based on population.

At least 90 communities have established committees to make sure everyone possible is counted.

"Every person that gets missed means a loss of funding at the local level," Harris said.

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Most of the census attention is focused on whether Minnesota will lose a U.S. House seat, but regardless of that, the state's congressional district boundaries will be redrawn after the 2010 census. And rural Minnesota may well lose representation.

Gillaspy's most recent figures show a mostly suburban district stretching from St. Cloud through the northern Twin Cities suburbs, represented by Rep. Michele Bachmann, has gained about 98,800 people since 2000. That is about the same number that rural northern, western and southern Minnesota districts represented by Reps. Jim Oberstar, Collin Peterson and Tim Walz have lost. Minneapolis and St. Paul-centered districts also have lost population.

With each congressional district required to have the same number of people (in 2000, redistricting ended with just a one person difference among districts), that means the suburbs will get more representation while rural and inner city areas get less once district maps are redrawn.

From a national perspective, Oregon, Utah and some southern states appear likely to gain U.S. House seats (although Oregon is on the bubble, like Minnesota). Besides Minnesota, states that could lose seats include Iowa, Illinois, Louisiana, Missouri and several in the northeast.

That is where the snowbird campaign comes in.

Gillaspy said that a Minnesotan staying warm in Arizona this winter cannot use a census form delivered to an Arizona address to be counted as a Minnesotan. Each form includes a barcode that identifies where the form was delivered, and the demographer said it cannot be crossed out or changed.

The post office is not supposed to forward census forms, so one should be in a snowbird's mailbox when he arrives home in Minnesota. They also will be available at one of eight census offices Minnesota.

Minnesota plans to distribute fliers at picnics and other places Minnesotans may gather in the South to let them know to fill out census forms up north, not where they are this winter.

"This is not the most important thing on most people's minds," Gillaspy said, although he said it is important to Minnesota's finances and its say in Congress. "Our daily lives are affected by it."

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