"It's 2000. Do you know where your people are?"
That takeoff on the old message that jolted parents before the 11 p.m. newscast might be put to the Pataki administration next year if it turns out the state loses an extra congressional seat and bundles of federal aid because it didn't do enough to get residents counted in the U.S. Census.
Annual Census Bureau population projections make it certain that New York will lose at least one seat. But it could also lose a second seat if a greater proportion of residents aren't counted than in 1990.
Since the size of the House of Representatives is fixed, apportioning seats is a zero-sum game. That means New York is in competition with other states to see which can get more of their residents counted.
Yet while California is spending $24.5 million on ads encouraging its residents to cooperate with Census takers, not hide from them, New York appropriated a relatively paltry $347,000 in the state budget approved earlier this month.
Given that kind of spending disparity, which state would you put your money on to produce the best count?
Pataki spokesmen say accuracy is not necessarily related to dollars and insist that the grass-roots effort they are putting together with so-called Local Complete Count Committees constitutes the best strategy.
It's based on tapping local governments, community groups, churches and the like to have them encourage or badger residents to fill out the forms and cooperate with Census takers when the count begins in March.
The biggest challenge will be gaining cooperation from immigrants, minorities, the homeless and others who traditionally don't trust the government and fear that the information will somehow be used against them.
Yet, the state's "Complete Count" Web site so far lists only two local communities -- West Seneca and Sloan -- that have established local committees. Those are hardly the places where the undercount of minorities and other hard-to-reach populations is likely to be greatest.
Gaining the trust of such populations is something local committees might be able to do better than a state or federal bureaucracy. However, part of the problem also can be solved simply by educating more people about the importance of the Census and the fact that the information, by law, cannot be used by immigration agents, the IRS, police or anyone except the Census Bureau. A mass media campaign like California's -- which costs money -- is one way to get that point across in a big way.
The Census Bureau itself will undertake a $166 million promotional campaign. But New York also should be looking out for its own interests, not relying on a federal agency.
A Pataki spokesman says they've "developed a strategy and approach that's going to yield the best count possible."
With more than $100 billion in population-based federal aid allocated each year, in addition to the congressional seats on the line, the state can only hope the administration isn't being penny-wise and pound-foolish.