Budget hurdles threaten 2010 census

The Census Bureau’s funding shortfall forced it to cancel 11 dress rehearsal programs and likely will delay the testing of its handheld devices and data transmission system.

Louis Kincannon, the bureau’s director, told lawmakers today that the bureau needs funds before Nov. 16, when the current continuing resolution expires, to ensure the technology trials happen as planned.

“We will make our final decision the week of Nov. 17 and then face up to see if we can test the handhelds and system that gets the input of data,” Kincannon said during a hearing of the House Oversight and Government Reform Subcommittee on Information Policy, the Census and National Archives. “If we can’t test the handhelds in time to make corrections before heading into the 2010 census, we will have to reconsider our plans.”

Kincannon said Commerce Department officials are trying to ease the immediate funding crunch. Commerce Secretary Carlos Gutierrez sent a letter to the House and Senate Appropriations committees asking to transfer $6.8 million to Census from another agency account. The bureau is part of the department.

“If we get it by Friday, it would shorten the delay in conducting the more limited dress rehearsal test of the handhelds and data integration software,” Kincannon said.

While Census officials are trying to figure out how to come up with about $76 million for the full dress rehearsal, Senate appropriators are threatening to withhold $10 million from the bureau’s fiscal 2008 budget. Lawmakers added a provision to the Commerce, Justice and Science spending bill that requires Commerce and the Office of Management and Budget to certify that Census has followed and met all best practices for information technology projects. Additionally, Census must submit a report to Congress on the steps it will take to let people complete future population counts online.

Sens. Richard Shelby (R-Ala.) and Tom Coburn (R-Okla.) authored the amendment. The Senate is debating the bill today.

Coburn has been an outspoken critic of Census’ decision to cut the online portion of the decennial count.

“If tens of millions of Americans can file their taxes online, do their banking online and shop online, they can surely take a six-question survey online,” Coburn said. “It’s no longer a question of whether or not people should be able to take the census online, but a matter of how we move forward and get it done. By letting the Census Bureau lay out what next steps should be, we can hold them accountable in a more meaningful way than we’ve been able to before.”

Coburn, ranking member of the Homeland Security and Governmental Affairs Subcommittee on Federal Financial Management, Government Information, Federal Services and International Security, promised Kincannon at a July hearing that he would attached a rider to the appropriations bill.

“The potential cost of moving the census online is a fraction of a percentage of the entire budget, but the potential upside is a savings of millions,” Coburn said. “The Census Bureau needs to think outside the box and come up with creative ways to save money and moving the census online is a way that just makes sense.”

In addition to the 11 canceled programs, Census has not yet decided whether to keep another seven, Kincannon said. These include dropping some dress rehearsal sites and telephone and fulfillment assistance in different languages.
Among the 11 programs that will not happen are questionnaire mailings; counting soldiers who live in barracks at Fort Bragg, N.C.; and the geocoding of certain forms.

Kincannon added that by delaying or canceling other programs, Census has saved $55 million to $76 million that it will use to keep the program running while Congress and the White House negotiate the 2008 budget.

But Kincannon also said in response to a question from Rep. Carol Mahoney (D-N.Y.) that if Congress doesn’t grant the full $76 million, future preparation costs would increase.

“We don’t want to run risk of not testing devices in field situations,” he said.

Otto Wolff, Commerce’s chief financial officer and assistant secretary for administration, told lawmakers that the department is working with OMB to include language in the next continuing resolution to give Census an anomaly to spend more than the 2007 limits.

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