Judge lets challenge to census citizenship query go forward

Copies of the 2010 Census forms.

Four state lawmakers are sponsoring a bill that would establish an outreach grant program to encourage Coloradans to participate in the census next April.

House Bill 1239 would set up a seven-member committee under the Department of Local Affairs by June 1. The committee would award grants to nonprofits and other community-based groups to educate Coloradans about the importance of the census.

Its prime sponsors  Democratic Reps. Kerry Tipper and Yadira Caraveo, and Sens. Kevin Priola, a Republican, and Faith Winter, a Democrat  are hoping to improve the state's chances of landing another congressional seat and stave off an under-count that could cost the state hundreds of millions of dollars.

The bill passed the House State, Veterans and Military Affairs Committee on March 26 on a 7-2 vote, with one Republican, Rep. Janice Rich of Grand Junction, voting with Democrats.

Tipper told reporters Monday that the census is one of the most important investments lawmakers can make for Colorado. She estimated that the federal government pays anywhere from $15,000 to $23,000 per person counted over a 10-year period for federal programs based on census numbers.

About a third of Colorado's annual budget comes from federal dollars tied to census counts, she said. That means funding for transportation, health care and education, including Pell Grants for higher education.

U.S. Rep. Ed Perlmutter of Arvada said in written testimony that the state receives $13 billion per year in federal dollars based on census numbers.

For the first time, the 2020 census will be taken in a digital format. That's a concern for rural communities with poor Internet service. And then there's the citizenship question sought by the Trump administration, which is raising concerns that undocumented residents will refuse to participate. According to the Constitution's 14th Amendment, Representative to the U.S. House are to be based on a count of all persons in each state.

Three federal court judges, all in different jurisdictions, have ruled against the Trump administration on requiring the citizenship question. The U.S. Supreme Court is scheduled to hear oral arguments on the issue on April 23.

The outreach is intended to contact people in hard-to-count communities, Tipper said. Much of rural Colorado lacks reliable broadband, she noted, so the program will prioritize grants to communities with broadband issues.

According to a fact sheet provided by the Colorado Senior Lobby, 17 percent of rural Coloradans do not have broadband access, which translates into about 117,000 people. Five percent of the entire state, or about 250,000 Coloradans, has no internet access.

Caraveo said evidence from other states indicates the government is the least-trusted to talk about the census.

"We want to take advantage of nonprofits and other community groups that already have relationships with hard-to-count Coloradans, especially in rural areas where government distrust is probably higher," she said.

Those relationships should also help in addressing the citizenship question, Caraveo said.

Nonprofits "can address those issues better than we could and in a more trusted fashion. ... What we're afraid of with that question is that it's already having a chilling effect."

Caraveo said there are already estimates of a 5 percent under-count. A 1.3 percent under-count would cost Colorado an eighth congressional seat, as well as about $630 million over a 10-year period, she said.

The bill's estimated cost is $12 million, with about half of that already set aside in the 2019-20 budget.

It's backed by a coalition of groups ranging from Colorado Common Cause to the Denver Metro Chamber of Commerce.

No one testified against the bill during the March 26 hearing.

House Bill 1239 is awaiting action from the House Appropriations Committee. 

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