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Texas' Decision Not To Prioritize Census Could Come At A Financial Cost

DAVID GREENE, HOST:

Many of the fastest-growing population centers in the country are in the state of Texas. And local governments in those areas are now preparing for the upcoming census, largely on their own. This is because Texas state leaders decided not to invest in the census. Ashley Lopez, from member station KUT in Austin, reports that members of both parties in Texas say this was a political decision that could come at a big financial cost.

ASHLEY LOPEZ, BYLINE: Bastrop County is a small rural county directly east of Austin. Like Austin, a lot of areas surrounding it are growing really fast. That's why local leaders in Bastrop have been meeting regularly in the past year.

PAUL PAPE: Hello, Becky. How you doing, girl?

LOPEZ: This is Paul Pape. He's been the county judge in Bastrop for about eight years. The census happens every ten years, so this is Pape's first. For a small community like Bastrop, the census is a way to make sure they get enough money for things like transportation and education for all the new people there. Pape says preventing an undercount is a lot of work, especially if you don't have a lot of resources.

PAPE: We'll work with what we've got. It would've been nice if the state leadership had recognized that local governments needed some support, but we'll make it work.

LOPEZ: What he means is that the state of Texas had an opportunity to really plan for the census. For example, they could have invested in it like California, which plans to spend almost $200 million on the census. Cesar Blanco, a Democratic state House member from El Paso, tried to convince other state lawmakers to spend at least a fraction of that.

CESAR BLANCO: Unfortunately, the bill that I introduced, House Bill 255, and the budget rider for $50 million did not receive the type of bipartisan support that we had hoped for.

LOPEZ: And Blanco says he thinks he knows why.

BLANCO: I think Republicans are fearful that a more accurate count disadvantages their party.

LOPEZ: Blanco says the state's growing Latino population, which is increasingly voting for Democrats, is a big threat to Republicans. Redistricting is next year, which means lawmakers will soon begin drawing political maps. And undercount of Latinos in the census could mean they will have a smaller political footprint too. Bastrop County Judge Paul Pape, who is a Republican, says his community is at risk of not getting all the resources it needs.

PAPE: As far as rural counties go, Bastrop's right at the head of the list on fast growing. And the projections are these - that in the next 10 years, we're projected to grow another 25% or so. In the next 50 years, we're projected to grow about 400% because Austin is pretty much filled up.

LOPEZ: Mariana Salazar with United Way says this is an issue facing the whole region. Salazar says local leaders in these smaller communities around Austin have had to figure out how to provide services to a growing population that can't afford to live in Austin.

MARIANA SALAZAR: They're living and breathing what it means to have very limited resources. And they know that an undercount could translate into cut in programs, and that would be exactly the opposite of what we would want.

LOPEZ: And this is more than just the state being short on cash for vital services. Texas could also miss out on getting more seats in Congress, which is why Pape says he's frustrated that leaders in his own party didn't take this as seriously as he has.

PAPE: People are coming to Texas. A thousand people every day are coming to Texas and settling here for jobs because our taxes are low and our air is clean and all - you know, all these things we brag about. Well, if that's the case, then why aren't we counting them all?

LOPEZ: Either way, Pape says he and others are getting the word out, and making the case for why everyone should respond to the census. For NPR News, I'm Ashley Lopez in Austin. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.