Following the money not so easy

Stimulus spending must be tracked at local level

March 13, 2009|By Paul West | Paul West,paul.west@baltsun.com

Washington -President Barack Obama says unprecedented transparency will be a hallmark of his presidency. But following the money in the stimulus package might not be as easy as he suggests.

Almost daily, state and federal officials proclaim their commitment to openness. Just yesterday, in conjunction with a day-long White House conference that dealt largely with that subject, Gov. Martin O'Malley expressed his determination to help Maryland citizens track federal stimulus dollars with "accountability, transparency and efficiency."

Many of the most important spending decisions aren't being made in Washington. They're getting thrashed out at state and local levels, where accountability is a wild card and there's no guarantee that taxpayers will get the dollar-by-dollar information that Obama is promising.

In some cases, money that goes to a local government may be impossible to follow under current White House guidelines, say open-government advocates.

"It could go to the mayor's brother-in-law. We don't know," said Craig Jennings of OMB Watch in Washington.

It is up to the states, for example, to decide how to divvy up the $28 billion for "shovel-ready" highway projects.

In Maryland, none of the funding that will flow to subcontractors on highway projects will be disclosed, said David Buck, a State Highway Administration spokesman. The state also doesn't provide detailed information about the location of most resurfacing projects, which will account for the largest single share of highway spending under the stimulus plan.

Under the Obama administration's transparency guidelines, "the money disappears after it changes hands twice," said Greg LeRoy of Good Jobs First, a liberal watchdog group that wants more complete disclosure.

As things stand, the federal government will disclose how much money it gives to a state, and the state must report back on how that money is distributed to a private company, or to a local government. Beyond that point, there is no requirement for disclosing where the money finally ends up, he said.

LeRoy's group is part of the Coalition for an Accountable Recovery, which has warned that there could be "corruption on a massive scale," as stimulus and financial bailout funds are spent.

The "only antidote is millions of eyeballs watching the money," LeRoy said, referring to ordinary citizens tracking the spending on government Web sites.

In Maryland, the O'Malley administration has moved with impressive speed to put recovery information online. At least 18 other states, including California, Texas and Florida, have yet to launch Web sites.

A top O'Malley aide acknowledged that recovery.maryland.gov is a work in progress, with navigation that is difficult for all but the most sophisticated computer users and less-than-complete information.

For example, a Maryland state highway project, recently singled out by Obama with considerable fanfare as the first in the nation to get funded, is only partially reported online. The president, in celebrating the mile-long resurfacing project, announced that the $2.1 million contract had gone to a Pennsylvania company, but the contractor isn't identified on the state Web site.

"We're working now to make it more user-friendly," said Beth Blauer, director of O'Malley's StateStat office.

She said the governor wants citizens to be able to see "what money went to their schools, transportation projects in their community, how many of their neighbors are getting covered by Medicaid," using tools that would allow them to compare spending in their neighborhoods to others around the state.

O'Malley's efforts are in line with Obama's emphasis on transparency, which he made a major theme of his 2008 campaign.

"Instead of politicians doling out money behind closed doors, the important decisions about where taxpayer dollars are invested will be yours to scrutinize," Obama says on recovery.gov, an administration Web site.

Pennsylvania Gov. Edward Rendell said that states should go the extra mile in laying out exactly how federal aid gets spent, even if it means providing more information than the administration requires.

"I think this is the biggest test of government in my lifetime," the 65-year-old Democrat, who also chairs the National Governors Association, told a group of reporters.

"I don't want people to say, 'You hid this. You hid that,' " he added. "Regardless of the federal requirement, I'm hopeful that a lot of us will try to make this the most transparent, because it's important."

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