Spending from the $787 billion stimulus bill, formally known as the American Recovery and Reinvestment Act, or ARRA, is underway. Since passage of the bill in February, payroll withholding for most employees has been decreased thanks to the Making Work Pay tax credit, and food stamp and unemployment benefits for those in need have been increased. Most of the attention, however, has focused on funds being allocated through state government. A recent Oklahoman editorial suggested that as Oklahoma begins to put federal stimulus dollars into projects to fix roads and bridges and other purposes, “it’s time for the public to begin the laborious task of holding government accountable for the billions in stimulus money en route to the states.” We wholeheartedly agree.
Last week I had the opportunity to attend a conference hosted by Good Jobs First that was specifically concerned with developing strategies for an accountable recovery. Good Jobs First is working closely with the advocacy organization OMB Watch and with national and state coalitions across the country to help ensure that citizens have access to comprehensive and timely information on stimulus funds. The national partners, known as the Coalition for an Accountable Recovery, and the state partners, known as the States for a Transparent and Accountable Recovery (STAR) coalition, have both launched websites that collect key documents and news releases related to the Recovery Act; the STAR website also has a blog. Both coalitions have a particularly strong interest in watchdogging which companies are benefiting from contracts (and to the extent possible, sub-contracts) funded with stimulus dollars.
In addition to these two advocacy websites, both the Obama Administration and Governor Henry are maintaining stimulus websites. The federal site, www.recovery.gov, allows users to track implementation of the Recovery Act by agency and by state. Particularly helpful are weekly financial and major activity reports being submitted by each federal agency (available for download as Excel spreadsheets) of funds that have been disbursed to state and local governments, as well as other recipients. We know, therefore, that the Department of Housing and Urban Development has paid out $231 million of $4.5 billion total available dollars through April 24th, and that Oklahoma is eligible for $30.4 million in child care block grant funding through ARRA, among other examples.
At the state level, Oklahoma’s Recovery Act website got off to a promising start in February and early March, but appears not to have been updated over the past month. While the Office of State Finance is waiting on federal guidance regarding reporting requirements on funds it has allocated and spent within the state, it is unfortunate that the website has not been kept current with the streams of information coming from Washington on the amounts and conditions of funding that is being made available through various funding streams. One notable exception is in the area of transportation, where ODOT is posting information on projects that have been awarded with Recovery Act funds. In the area of education funding, however, where the feds have issued extensive guidelines, the state offers but a single link, buried in the middle of the page, while for housing and other areas following the only available links on the state website gets one to an error message for an unavailable report.
Whether one favored the stimulus bill or opposed it, there is a shared interest in insisting on a transparent process and accountable outcomes. But this cannot be a passive or one-way exchange. For the government to do its job well, we, the people, have to do ours as well.