Unexpected funding cut puzzles Census Bureau's backers

The Census Bureau, which launches the massive 2010 census in a matter of months, may have a $206 million hole to fill if the House Appropriations Committee's version of the fiscal 2010 Commerce-Justice-Science spending bill reaches the White House unchanged.

The bureau's potential problem emerged June 9, when the committee cut its $7.4 billion budget request by $206 million, the amount of money appropriators thought Census officials would have in leftover fiscal 2009 funds.

But Census officials had committed the money to pay for a media campaign, according to Hill aides, sparking concern over how to make up the deleted fiscal 2010 funding.

The Commerce Department sent a memo to House appropriators Monday, warning that the gap might have to be bridged by dipping into a $573 million pot reserved for contingencies that might occur during the course of the decennial count.

Such contingencies, officials explained in the department's "impact statement" distributed to lawmakers, include a physical event, such as a natural disaster that displaces huge populations, or another crisis that might arise as the census gets under way.

"If that were to happen, we would have to seek an emergency supplemental appropriation to complete the census as planned and on schedule," they warned.

One Obama administration aide described the potential shortfall as "a technical mistake," saying the department and House appropriators crossed wires on the status of the bureau's fiscal 2009 funds.

But, the aide added, the funds may be restored in conference negotiations, assuming the Senate approves the bureau's full $7.4 billion request in its version of the spending bill.

Confusion about the budget cut surfaced as backers of the bureau were preparing to fight amendments to fiscal 2010 spending bill that would poach funds from the decennial count. The bill is expected to be considered on the House floor Tuesday.

"Census stakeholders are focused on heading off amendments" that would strip 2010 funding, said Terri Ann Lowenthal, who chaired Obama's transition team for the Census. "It is foolhardy to shortchange the bureau in a census year."

At least one amendment is expected to seek a redirection of census funds, which are a perennial target for lawmakers hoping to shake loose extra dollars for law enforcement grants and other largesse for their home districts.

Rep. Pete Olson, R-Texas, is expected to propose an amendment that would move $566.5 million from the census to restore the NASA Exploration account.

In last week's markup, Democrats voted down an amendment by Rep. Ken Calvert, R-Calif., that would have moved $100 million in census funds to the Justice Department's State Criminal Alien Assistance Program.

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