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Census Radar on Hunt for ‘Snowbirds’

Minnesota's efforts to count its traveling residents during the 2000 Census were modest.

Barbara Ronningen, one of the state's demographers, says she gave her father, Sidney Ronningen, and other Minnesotans who went south for the winter fliers to hand out at gatherings of the state's snowbirds at annual picnics in Arizona and Florida.

"We weren't in danger of losing a congressional seat back then," she said.

The 2010 Census is different. The state stands to lose one of its eight congressional seats because population growth has lagged behind other states. So, Ronningen says, it is working aggressively with communities and organizations to make sure each head is counted, whether in Minneapolis or Mesa.

In a year when state and local governments are scrambling for any available dollars, northern-tier states are ramping up efforts to make sure that winter travelers to warmer climates - fondly known as "snowbirds" - are counted in their home states.

The amount of federal dollars tied to population is the key concern.

The Census Bureau estimates that $400 billion in federal funding is tied to the federal population counts. And the shift of population in winter is huge. The University of Florida estimated the state's population grows by about 800,000 in the winter months; Arizona State University reported an increase of about 300,000 in that state during winter months.

Minnesota's latest population estimate from the State Demographic Center, released in July, was 5.3 million. It needs to count about 2,000 to 3,000 more people to ensure that Minnesota maintains eight congressional seats, Ronningen said. The state estimates it will lose $1,300 for every person it misses, she said.

In Michigan, where unemployment is high and population is slipping, officials have launched a campaign to educate snowbirds on filling out the forms to reflect where they live most of the time. Lt. Gov. John Cherry, who is heading Michigan's Census count effort, says an estimated 200,000 snowbirds were missed in 2000, contributing to the loss of a congressional seat and about $2 billion in federal funds over the decade.

The state expects to lose one of its 15 congressional seats in 2010 because its population has grown by less than 1% over the past 10 years, he says, but it hopes a more accurate Census will keep the loss to one, rather than two seats.

Because Census forms are sent to every residence in the country - about 130 million are to go out in 2010 - chances are the winter travelers will get one in their home state and one at their winter homes.

The problem lies in the fact that Census forms are not forwarded by the post office because they are based on residence, not the person, said Kim Hunter, a Census Bureau media specialist in Detroit.

So Rosanne and William Bowker, both 65, of Royal Oak, Mich., will see only the Census form they get at the Fort Myers, Fla., home, where they've spent about four months every winter for the past four years.

The Bowkers could wait until Census workers follow up with house-by-house visits of households that didn't return the form, but they definitely want to be sure they're counted as residents of Michigan, not Florida.

"I didn't realize how important it was," Rosanne Bowker says.

New York could lose two of its 29 congressional seats based on the 2010 Census count, says Bob Scardamalia, the state's chief demographer.

Scardamalia estimates the number of New Yorkers living elsewhere part of the year is a quarter of a million.

The number, he says, "is large enough to have an impact on state population counts, congressional redistricting and that all translates into dollars."

The state has enlisted the Civil Service Department to include information on how to fill out the Census forms in newsletters sent to the state's retirees, and Gov. David Paterson has recorded a video public service announcement encouraging a full Census count, Scardamalia says.

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