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Wars cost N.C. a seat in Congress
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Wars cost N.C. a seat in Congress

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RALEIGH — North Carolina will lose out on a congressional seat and future tax dollars because so many of its military personnel were deployed during the U.S. Census and counted in population totals for other states, according to an Associated Press review.

The Census counts most troops at the base where they live and work. But for personnel who are deployed overseas, the government tallies them for their home state — often where the service member grew up or has family.

For example, a soldier based at Fort Bragg in North Carolina could list his home as being in Oklahoma because that’s where he was raised. That soldier would be counted in Oklahoma if he were deployed overseas during the Census.

North Carolina officials estimate more than 40,000 troops were deployed from the state’s military bases around the time of the Census one year ago, but only 12,200 of the nation’s overseas military personnel listed North Carolina as their home state, according to Department of Defense data.

The gap of some 28,000 troops was costly: The state was about 15,000 people shy of getting an extra congressional seat from Minnesota. Those seats are doled out based on population figures to ensure fair representation in the U.S. House.

N.C. Gov. Bev Perdue unsuccessfully lobbied Census officials last year to count deployed personnel at their base of last assignment.

Perdue’s liaison for Census issues, Bob Coats, doesn’t see a way to fight the discrepancy but plans to work with the Census for the 2020 count.

“A large chunk of those people who are deployed out may not consider themselves to be North Carolinians on their paperwork, but their presence at this base definitely impacts North Carolina’s economy,” Coats said. “They’re voting in North Carolina. They’re using goods and services in North Carolina.”

Even though personnel may stay at a base for only a short period, they are typically replaced with more troops.

Camp Lejeune on North Carolina’s coast had about 8,000 service members deployed at the time of the Census — more than 10 percent of the population of Jacksonville, where the base is located.

Richard Woodruff, Jacksonville’s city manager, estimated the policy will cost the city about

$7 million in state and federal tax money that would be divided up based on population figures over the next decade.

“To undercount any community is an unfortunate thing. But when you’re undercounting people who are actually out there defending freedom, that is the ultimate insult and the ultimate discourtesy,” Woodruff said.

A Government Accountability Office report found that about $478 billion federal tax dollars — for everything from Medicaid to highway projects — were distributed in fiscal year 2009 at least in part based on Census data.

The Census first began assigning troops to their home state during the Vietnam War in 1970. It was abandoned for the 1980 count in part because officials weren’t sure about the reliability of records listing the “home state” of overseas personnel. The policy returned in the 1990 count amid pressure from Congress to include overseas Americans.

If the home information is unavailable, the Census turns to a service member’s legal residence and then last duty station.

Massachusetts claimed after the 1990 Census that the policy improperly cost the state a seat in Congress, but the Supreme Court rejected the state’s legal challenge, determining the home state assignment was compatible with the Census policy of identifying each person’s “usual residence.”

Steve Murdock, a former Census Bureau director, acknowledged it is a challenging issue. He noted that while areas around military bases feel the deployed personnel are part of their community, the areas that produced the service member also have a right to feel a connection.

“It’s one of those cases where I think it’s very difficult to say there’s an absolute right or wrong way,” Murdock said. “There’s logic to both methods.”

It’s a dispute that has sharpened because of large deployments to Iraq and Afghanistan.

Carter Hendricks, president and CEO of the Hopkinsville-Christian County Chamber of Commerce, said the Census count came when between 6,000 and 8,000 troops were deployed from Fort Campbell, Ky.

Not only will that curb tax dollars awarded, Hendricks said it also could hamper economic growth and recruitment because so many businesses assess population trends before deciding where to invest or expand.

Hendricks said the policy skews the numbers for an area that will be supporting the troops when they come home. “All we’re asking the Census bureau to consider is where they actually live when they come back from deployment.”

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