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Stimulus transparency a work in progress — Federal spending Web site basic; state's improving

by Scott Davis
March 8, 2009
in the Lansing State Journal

Ever since Steve Watson had his first job at age 16 picking asparagus, he's paid his taxes. And he's always wanted to ensure the government spends his money wisely.

So naturally, when the 53-year-old heard that President Barack Obama pledged a new era of transparency with his 3-week-old $787 billion stimulus package, Watson was glad he could log online and check how every dollar was spent.

Site in infancy

But glee turned to glum when the Lansing man learned that the Web site, recovery.gov, is still in the infancy stage, lacking substantial information about spending and no user-friendly interface for taxpayers to quickly find the information they want.

"It seems like they would want to get right on it. If it's transparent, why isn't it up already?" said Watson, who is attending Lansing Community College after losing his job as a warehouse supervisor due to an injury.

Want to find the amount that the Ingham County Health Department will receive in stimulus funding? Check your local newspaper.

Curious about the estimated stimulus amount Lansing School District is eligible to receive in Title I funding for at-risk children? You're plumb out of luck.

Experts say these hazy first steps toward greater transparency underscore the challenges that states face in reporting stimulus spending decisions both to the federal government and to taxpayers.

Obama hailed the move as a new era of accountability allowing taxpayers to see how every dollar is spent, and many states, including Michigan, now are scrambling to meet that high standard.
Reports required

Under federal guidelines, states will need to report stimulus expenditures, numbers of jobs created, how long it took to complete the projects, among other things.

"None of the states are tracking what they need to," said Nathan Newman, interim director of the Progressive States Network, a New York-based research group that supports state legislation and policies for working families.


The good news is that Michigan appears to be ahead of the curve in reporting stimulus-related funding. Michigan is now one of only 18 states shown on the recovery.gov/state resources Web site as providing its own stimulus reporting sites. That allows users to quickly link to the state Web site from the federal site to find information about their state.

Mich. site improved

That represents a shift from only 17 months ago, when a nationwide study gave Michigan an "F" for its online disclosure of economic development subsidies awarded by state agencies, government contracts awarded and lobbying activity.
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The state ranked 38th worst nationwide in online accountability, according to the study by Good Jobs First, a Washington, D.C., policy resource center that promotes corporate and government accountability.

"The transparency movement has gained significant steam in the past two years," said Leon Drolet, chairman and founder of the Michigan Taxpayers Alliance, adding the state remains deficient in posting non-stimulus purchase information online.

In recent weeks, state officials have been busily creating an Economic Recovery Office to oversee the funding that will come into the state and creating a state Web site to report spending.

"There are a few additional (reporting) requirements, but not anything that is a burden because the process of meeting that goal is largely already in place," said Tiffany Brown, spokeswoman for Gov. Jennifer Granholm. "

In the end, federal officials say they envision a national database, showcased on recovery.gov, that compiles data provided by federal, state and local agencies.

About half of the federal money is expected to flow through state and local governments.

Once that apparatus is in place nationwide, Newman said he hopes the result will be worth the effort. Information compiled could lead to a better-designed stimulus during the next economic crisis, he said.

"This is a real-time experiment in growing the economy," Newman said. "We know there will be a lot of innovation out there in the states. If you don't track who is getting the money and who is being successful at creating jobs, how to say who should get more the next round?"


Open government

Besides shaping future stimulus policy, greater transparency will help the country achieve the goal of an open government accountable to the public, said Randy Watkins, a professor of political science at LCC.

"It's an absolute core element of trust in a democracy," Drolet said.

"There's a lot more trust, and government operates with a lot more support, if citizens know how their tax dollars are being spent."