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Commerce reports $1.6 billion savings for decennial census

The Census Bureau is returning $1.6 billion to taxpayers, Commerce Secretary Gary Locke and Bureau Director Robert Groves announced on Tuesday during a briefing on the 2010 head count.

The duo, who spoke to reporters at the National Press Club in Washington, credited an aggressive advertising campaign built around the census and strong management for the savings. The mail-back response rate for the 2010 census was 72 percent and reduced the need for more expensive door-to-door enumerators, Locke said.

The bureau spent $172 million on advertising, $32 million more than officials had budgeted, said Steve Jost, Census' associate director of communications, during a background briefing for reporters on Monday. The bureau targeted advertising to areas with low response rates during the spring.

Locke on Tuesday called the 2010 census a "textbook example" of the Obama administration's accountable government initiative. "We're on time and under budget," he said.

Groves praised bureau employees for improving the efficiency of the decennial census, noting they worked longer hours than during the 2000 census.

Half of the savings, or $800 million, was credited to what Jost referred to as "good fortune." This money was budgeted well before Groves assumed his position as director for unforeseen challenges such as a natural disaster or an H1N1 flu epidemic.

But House Oversight and Government Reform Committee Ranking Member Rep. Darrell Issa, R-Calif., said the Census Bureau actually ran $3 billion over budget. The Government Accountability Office originally reported the life-cycle cost of the 2010 census as $11.3 billion. According to Issa, mismanagement forced the administration to increase the total budget to $16 billion, thus allowing the Commerce Department to report savings when the cost for the 2010 census came in at $14.4 billion. In a statement released on Tuesday, he said it was disingenuous to attribute the $800 million to cost-efficiency and management.

"This is precisely the smoke-and-mirrors budget gimmickry that the American people have come to expect from the federal government," Issa said. "It is ironic that an agency in existence to do simple arithmetic would try to peddle such incomplete and deceptive figures to cover up for its waste of an estimated $3 billion of taxpayers' money. Only in Washington could someone try to spin such an embarrassing budget-buster into a triumph of thrift."

Groves said handheld computers -- scrapped in 2008 after a number of setbacks -- would have increased efficiency, allowed for immediate transfer of data and enabled Census workers to download new assignments. Groves added the bureau will re-evaluate the circumstances surrounding the handheld computers in the coming months.

National and state population data, used to apportion congressional seats, will be released on or before Dec. 31. The Census Bureau will conduct its next press conference in mid-September.

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