Friday, June 5, 2009

Stimulus Watch: Tracking the flow of recovery dollars

According to Sen. Jon Tester’s office, Montana is slated to receive $1,183,051,407.76 in federal funding through the American Recovery and Reinvestment Act.

Add in the additional $575,713,000 in estimated federal tax relief, and Montana’s share of the tax-payer funded economic stimuli comes to around $1.8 billion.

Keeping track of that money is no easy task, despite lawmakers’ promises of transparency. I’ve spent weeks combing state and federal agencies’ Web sites, talking to lawmakers and their staffers, and re-reading dozens of press releases and news stories announcing the approval of various monies for various projects.

I think we’ll be putting those pieces together for a long time before a clear picture begins to form from this stimulus puzzle.

Here’s what I have figured out so far.

About $666 million of the $1.2 billion that will be spent in Montana goes to state programs and projects. Those funds had to be accepted and appropriated by the Montana Legislature, which it did when it passed House Bill 645. Gov. Brian Schweitzer signed that key piece of legislation into law on May 14. At that point, the state agencies could get to work on the plumbing that would be used to distribute the funds.

The remaining $517 million in ARRA funds get funneled through federal agencies such as the Forest Service, for things like fire prevention and road restoration, or the Department of the Interior, for thing like improving the national parks and water projects.

I spent hours examining spreadsheets, charts table and graphs on government Web sites and I talked to about a dozen state and local officials just trying to figure out how the stimulus package is actually supposed to function. As I did so, an analogy began to develop.

The recovery act is like a system of pipes and reservoirs that transfers the money—or water in this model—to “shovel ready projects” and various social safety nets. The federal treasury is the enourmous water tower that sits up on the hill. When Barack Obama signed the $787 billion program into law on Feb. 17, the money—or water in this model—began flowing out of that tower through massive pipelines and into states.

In Montana, much of the plumbing through which the stimulus funds will eventually flow was in place long before the ARRA. Many state agencies are already equipped to receive and spend federal dollars and do so all the time for things like food stamps and highway construction.

Sometimes the money flows to the state coffers first. Those dollars then need to be appropriated by the Legislature. Other times it flows directly to the state agencies, but the Legislature has to give those agencies the authority to turn the valve on and spend the money.

In Montana, the Legislature has sole authority to appropriate money. So even though Obama authorized millions of dollars to flow the state’s way, most of that money couldn’t be tapped until the Legislature passed bills implementing the spending.

So, in Montana, a large volume of the $666 million filled up a big reservoir: the state coffers. From there lawmakers in Helena were charged with the task of constructing smaller pipelines into various state agencies (HB 645). Some of the money went to the Department of Public Health and Human Services for things like shoring up Medicaid and unemployment benefits. Some went to education for improving schools and ensuring children with disabilities have access to quality public education, etc.

Simple, right?

Long story short, the water—or money—has to travel through a vast network of pipes and reservoirs built by an untold number of plumbers before it finally comes out the spigot in the form of new roads, school renovations, or home weatherization, etc.

Next week in the Tribune I’ll begin what I’m sure will end up begin the months-long, if not years-long, task of trying to track how the federal stimulus dollars are flowing in Montana.Think of me as a plumbing inspector.

How much money has actually been spent, and on what? Are new jobs being created? Who’s keeping track of the money and ensuring that it’s being spent wisely? What are lawmakers doing to fulfill the promise of transparency? In short, is the stimulus working in Big Sky Country?

I’m not promising to all of those questions in a week's time, but I’ll begin working on them by taking at look at one specific highway project in order to try to explain to readers how the ARRA money got to Montana, and how it’s being put to use.

In the meantime, here are a few links to recovery Web sites if you want to try your own hand and following the money:



Federal by agency

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