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Census crucial in Minnesota

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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.

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 Minnesotan is tallied 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 warmer states, Gillaspy said.

Some of that impact may be clearer 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, less than 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.