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From Dan Walters

Federal and state demographers have conducted a polite argument over California's population for nearly a decade and now are more than 1.5 million persons apart - a dispute that may be settled by the 2010 census.

Last week, the state Department of Finance estimated that California had gained 353,000 residents during the 12-month period that ended on June 30 and that its population stood at 38.5 million. On Wednesday, the Census Bureau said the state gained 381,000 residents during that same period but had just under 37 million residents.

The dispute centers on how many people moved from California to other states during the decade. The Census Bureau says it detected a large out-migration while the state's demographers believe that the outflow was much smaller. Both agencies use indirect indicators, such as driver's licenses, income tax filings, to make their estimates.

Next year's census may settle the debate, and the political and financial stakes for California are huge. The difference between the two numbers would be the equivalent of two seats in Congress, for example, and many federal payments to the state are based on population data. Pre-census estimates by outside experts believe that the state's largest-in-the-nation congressional delegation, now 53 seats, could wind up losing one, gaining one or remaining the same, depending on how the census turns out.

The Census Bureau said that only Texas outgained California numerically during the 2008-09 period, adding 478,000 residents to end at 24.8 million, The full state-by-state report is available here.

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