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This column is meant to be a conversation about the federal stimulus package as the Comptroller's office tracks how the money is spent in Texas.

June 8, 2009

Who's watching your money?

By LAYLAN COPELIN

The better question: Who isn't? The White House's promise of transparency for the stimulus billions has everyone from journalists to data geeks to the Legislature weighing in.

When Congress approved the $787 billion American Recovery & Reinvestment Act, the question on most people's minds was, "How can I get some of that money?"

That's still paramount. But there is also a concern that taxpayers should see what they are buying.

Each state has an official stimulus Web site that's linked to the federal government's recovery.gov. Pro Publica, a nonprofit group dedicated to investigative journalism, is considering grading the list of government sites, which vary widely in scope.

Even before the act became law, some technology activists said it would be better if governments provided the raw data for outsiders to analyze, instead of just posting government reports to Web sites.

Some news organizations also are posting their own maps of stimulus projects, such as this one in Wisconsin. Pro Publica is asking its readers to adopt a stimulus-funded road project to report on.

No matter how many eyes are on the stimulus money, it's hard to know where to focus. As this chart shows, there are many pipelines from the federal government to the money's ultimate recipients.

Last week, for example, recovery.gov showed that federal agencies had announced their intent to award almost $8.9 billion to Texas.

Good luck trying to reconcile that number in Texas easily.

The federal dollars don't flow into one collection center in Texas. The money may come through the state Treasury or directly to cities, counties, universities or other recipients.

That said, the Legislature spelled out its expectations for managing the federal stimulus money in its appropriations bill.

The state budget, which is awaiting action by the Governor, appropriates $12.1 billion in stimulus money for fiscal 2010-11. (Another $2.3 billion is coming through state government before August 31, the end of the current fiscal year.)

The Legislature requires state agencies and universities to submit their plans for spending the money to the Governor and the Legislative Budget Board by Sept. 30. They also must submit quarterly reports on the number of jobs created or retained with the money.

Agency heads must certify they understand the federal rules and accept responsibility for how they spend the money. (In other words, Don't Mess Up in Texas.)

The Legislature also requires that agencies post all reports to the Legislative Budget Board and federal authorities on their state Web sites.

Meanwhile, the Comptroller's office is asking agencies to submit weekly summaries of their stimulus spending.

These summaries will be a good starting point to see who has received and spent stimulus money. But each agency will probably be the best place to get the details of how the money is spent.

The Texas Department of Transportation, for example, already has a user-friendly list and map of its stimulus-funded projects that includes the contractors doing the work.

The State Auditor's Office is adding nine auditors and an investigator to double-check how the money is spent. And the public can report any suspicious expenditure to its fraud line.

That doesn't include what the federal government will do to monitor stimulus spending.

Texas is one of 16 states that the U.S. General Accounting Office has designated for special oversight because of its size.

In other words, there will be a lot of cooks in the stimulus kitchen.

Let's hope it's a recipe for clarity.

E-mail your comments or suggestions for future columns to Laylan.Copelin@cpa.state.tx.us

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