By Hannah Morse The Palm Beach Post
WEST PALM BEACH — The woman who oversaw Florida’s far-reaching effort to educate residents on the 2000 census said she was “really surprised” the state has not yet established the committee for next year’s census — and is concerned it might be too late.
Ilene Lieberman Michelson, chairwoman of the statewide Complete Count Committee leading up to the 2000 census and who led Broward County’s local committee in 2010, said the two most important outcomes of a high census turnout are representation and population-based federal grants.
A Complete Count Committee is created locally or statewide to develop ways to raise awareness about the census. Committees can host events, disseminate information through social media and use targeted approaches to make sure hard-to-reach populations, like undocumented immigrants or homeless people, are counted. Each person counted in Palm Beach County, as an example, equates to $1,600 per resident, or $24 billion over 10 years, of federal funding.
“I would think that regardless of what political party … you fit into, it’s always better to have more influence in Congress than less,” said Lieberman, a former Broward County Lauderhill mayor, who currently works for a Fort Lauderdale-based law firm.
State Sen. Bobby Powell, D-West Palm Beach, announced Friday he was refiling a bill he sponsored to create a statewide committee for the 2020 census. Florida has had a statewide committee for at least three censuses: 1990, 2000 and 2010.
Through a legislative assistant, Powell said he thinks the bill did not get a hearing during the 2019 legislative session because Gov. Ron DeSantis and state Sen. Dennis Baxley, the Republican chair of the Ethics and Elections Committee, think it should be up to the federal government, not the state, to help with the census.
The decennial count is getting attention on the national level due to a Supreme Court ruling Friday preventing the U.S. Commerce Department, headed by Palm Beach resident Wilbur Ross, from including a question about responders’ citizenship on next year’s questionnaire.
DeSantis expressed his view about a state role in the Census in June after a bill-signing event in Sarasota, according to the Tampa Bay Times, saying, “The federal government does that. We don’t have a role in it.” Neither the governor’s office nor Baxley responded to an email request for comment.
Powell said refiling the bill was a response to the Supreme Court’s rejection of the proposed citizenship question on the 2020 census.
“I think we still need a Complete Count Committee. I still think we need to take an active role,” Powell told The Palm Beach Post in a phone interview.
Even without ques-tions about citizenship, Powell believed some residents will still be afraid to fill out the cen-sus because they do not know what the federal government will do with the information — a concern that played out in previous censuses.
The U.S. Census Bureau has said it will not share any in-formation collected through the census. If federal employees are found to have shared information, fines or jail time could be imposed.
If DeSantis changed his views, the earliest the bill could be passed and signed would be the first day of session in January, less than three months before Census Day, Powell said.
“That’s way too late,” Lieberman said. “It needs to get started now.”
The 1990 Complete Count Committee, for example, was established by the Legislature in 1989 with a budget of $200,000, according to a Tampa Tribune article. Clyde Diao, Governor’s Liaison for the Census, said the Legislature allocated a budget of $1.5 million for the 2000 committee and $2.1 million for the 2010 committee.
Florida has 104 local Complete Count Committees as of June 28, mostly run by municipalities but also political organizations, churches and nonprofits. According to the U.S. Census Bureau website, two committees have been formed in Polk County — Polk County Board of County Commissioners and City of Lake Wales Although there is a concerted effort at the local level, having a statewide committee brings consistency to the process and could aid rural communities that might not have the same resources as other locales, Lieberman said.
“There’s a lot of weight that is riding on our accurate count of the population here in the state of Florida,” Powell said. “It’s incumbent upon us as a state government to make sure we do everything possible to have the most accurate number.”