WASHINGTON -- The Census Bureau may boost its population estimates to ensure that states will receive their fair share under federal aid programs despite the undercount of the 1990 census -- a move that could increase the private-activity bond volume cap in 27 states.

The official census figures will be used to apportion seats in Congress and state legislatures. But Commerce Secretary Robert A. Mosbacher this week said he wants the Census Bureau to use higher estimates reflecting a truer picture of the number of U.S. residents when the bureau makes population projections for various federal aid programs.

Mr. Mosbacher left the decision of when to use the adjusted figures up to the bureau's discretion, so it is still not certain whether they will be incorporated in the population estimates made for the volume cap. But "presumably these are the numbers that will be in some way used in the future," said Victor J. Miller, a senior fellow with Federal Funds Information for States.

The adjusted figures "are the best statistical judgment" of the current U.S. population, he added. Mr. Miller's organization is a research service sponsored jointly by the National Governors' Association and the National Conference of State Legislatures.

The adjusted numbers -- which show higher population numbers in all 50 states than those reported in the 1990 census -- were determined from a follow-up survey of 165,000 U.S. households. Census officials calculated that the 1990 census failed to count about 5 million U.S. residents, many of whom are minorities in large cities.

Mr. Mosbacher's suggestion that the Census Bureau use the higher numbers for its population estimates comes too late for any changes to be made in the 1991 volume cap, which totaled about $14 billion for the 50 states and the District of Columbia. But the bureau could incorporate the numbers into the annual report, scheduled to be published at the end of the year, that states are required to use to calculate their 1992 volume caps.

The volume cap law allows each state to allocate the greater of $50 per capita or $150 million of private-activity bond authority each year. Currently, 27 states have populations large enough that they calculate their cap on a per capita basis. Another 23 states and the District of Columbia receive the special $150 million allotment.

Each of the four largest states would see significant population increases under the adjusted figures: California's estimate would rise 3.8%, or 1.23 million, to 30.8 million; New York would increase 1.7%, or 314,000, to 18.3 million; Texas would jump 3.3%, or 564,000, to 17.5 million; and Florida would climb 2.63%, or 340,000, to 13.3 million.

Ironically, some of the 23 states receiving $150 million annually would incur the largest percentage increases. Those states' populations are small enough that, even with the increases, they would still qualify for the special allotment. The District of Columbia's population estimate would jump 5.2%, or 32,000, to 639,000. New Mexico would rise 4.7%, or 171,000, to 1.58 million. Arizona would increase 3.4%, or 130,ooo, to 3.8 million.

The 1990 census generated controversy during much of last year, with many states and large cities complaining that the Census Bureau failed to count a large number of their residents. Some of the local governments sued the bureau over the disputed figures, and Mr. Mosbacher said Monday he expected those governments would continue to press their cases in court.

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