SPRINGFIELD — The 2020 census begins in less than a year, and billions of dollars in federal funding and as many as two congressional seats are at stake for Illinois.
But census advocates worry the state is taking too long to get money out to those whose outreach efforts will impact how accurately Illinois’ residents are counted.
For the first time, the Legislature last May appropriated $1.5 million for outreach efforts. Nearly a year later, that money has not yet been doled out to outreach organizations, and time is running out to address the barriers that could create an undercount of Illinoisans in 2020.
“Illinois could be a tried and true national model for census outreach, but we haven’t been able to prove that yet because the money hasn’t gone out the door,” Anita Banerji said. She’s with the nonprofit group Forefront, which is leading a coalition of more than 40 local and statewide organizations for census outreach.
The $1.5 million was originally given to the Illinois Secretary of State’s office, which also has administrative control over the state’s Complete Count Commission for census outreach.
But lawmakers gave no funds to the SoS’s office to administer the grant, or to help the Complete Count Commission’s work.
Full-time employees at the SoS’s office are working on top of their normal duties to help the Commission fulfill its mandates, and to make sure the $1.5 million is given to census advocates.
Secretary of State spokesman Dave Druker said it’s difficult for the office’s employees to take on the extra work.
“The people involved have full-time positions already, and these are almost full-time jobs themselves,” Druker said of the census-related work.
Still, Druker said, the $1.5 million was “ready to go” by early October 2018, before several advocacy groups, including Forefront, requested a public hearing on the matter to make sure the money would be appropriated where it was needed most.
That hearing was held Nov. 26, but it took more than three months for the SoS’s bidding process to begin in March.
That process has ended, but the SoS’s office still must go through the 42 applications to determine where the money will go. Funds must be dispersed by the end of the fiscal year, June 30, Druker said.
“We didn’t realize there would be such a long period between the hearing and the revamped request for proposal,” Banerji said. “It all took longer than we had anticipated.”
By comparison, Banerji said, Forefront’s bidding process for a privately-raised grant started Jan. 15, and recipients were announced at a summit Wednesday in Springfield.
Druker, however, emphasized the difficulty for the Secretary of State’s office, which was given no money to do work it had never before been tasked with doing.
“I think the process, by definition, is not able to move as fast as some people would like when you have to put something out for bid,” Druker said.
More outreach funds from the state are in the pipeline.
Thursday, three senators held a news conference to discuss three bills that would give either $25 million or $33 million to census advocates in Illinois.
However, two of those bills would have the money administered by the Secretary of State’s office and the same process that has slowed the $1.5 million grant.
The third would have the Illinois Department of Commerce and Economic Opportunity run the grant process.
“They have the expertise in administering grants of this size,” said Griselda Vega Samuel, who sits on the state’s census commission representing the Mexican American Legal Defense and Education Fund. “In our mind, that is the best place to handle and administer the money.”
Other census advocates doubt the money can get to advocacy groups without delays.
“Budget conversations don’t happen until the end of the session. Then, that money will have to be appropriated,” said Jay Young, executive director of Common Cause Illinois, which is doing census outreach alongside Forefront and MALDEF.
“Our timeline is stretched so that the new money’s not going to be out on the streets until the end of the year,” Young said. “And organizations doing the outreach work need time to develop a plan as well.”
Young said it was rumored that none of the legislation will move until the different camps work out where the proposed money will go, how much it will be, and how it will come out of the state’s already strapped budget.
But Sen. Kimberly Lightford, who is sponsoring Senate Bill 2053 that gives $25 million to the Secretary of State’s office for census grants, said Illinois is “right on target” for census outreach.
“It’s a matter of us finishing up our budget and making sure the funds are available,” Lightford said during Thursday’s news conference. “I’m not concerned with the effort being a slow drag, I think we’re being proactive.”
While there’s no clear indication where the money would come from in the budget, there’s apparent backing from Gov. JB Pritzker.
“The governor and our whole administration will be your unwavering partner in fighting for Illinois,” Deputy Gov. Sol Flores said at Wednesday’s summit.
The other bills allocating money for census outreach are SB 1408, sponsored by Iris Martinez, D-Chicago; SB 1600, sponsored by Elgie Sims Jr., D-Chicago; and House Bill 928 sponsored by Rep. André Thapedi, D-Chicago.
“In order for the groups to really plan,” Common Cause’s Young said, “we need to know what the state is prepared to do. The more time we spend going back and forth, we all lose.”