AUGUSTA, Maine — The doors to the federal bank seemed to swing wide open this week as announcement after announcement came from Washington, D.C., about economic stimulus cash headed Maine’s way.
For a small state like Maine, the numbers were eye-catching, to say the least.
— $100 million for renovations to federal buildings, including $53 million for the Margaret Chase Smith Federal Building in Bangor.
— $100 million more to help rural Mainers purchase homes.
— $48 million for the state’s public schools.
And that’s just a partial list.
With so much money flowing so fast, there are concerns that some of those taxpayer dollars will be squandered, or end up in the pockets of people who didn’t do a thing to help get the economy back on track.
Officials in both Augusta and Washington have set up systems to make sure all of that taxpayer money is spent appropriately, and that the public can track where it’s going.
As part of that effort, Maine plans to launch a fraud alert hot line in the coming weeks that would allow residents to report questionable use of the stimulus dollars. The hot line would supplement a state Web site, www.maine.gov/recovery, that will feature details of all of the stimulus money coming into Maine, eventually including the names of the contractors carrying out the work and the number of jobs created.
The exact details, such as who would receive the complaints first, are still being hashed out, state Finance Commissioner Ryan Low said Friday. But the idea behind the hot line, he said, was to make it easier for people to report suspected fraud.
The one state agency that is already putting stimulus money to work — and feeling the heat of public scrutiny — is the Department of Transportation.
“This is the most looked-after money that I’ve ever seen,” DOT Commissioner David Cole said. “We’re having constant meetings with the feds.”
Maine was the first state in the nation to meet the White House’s request to file plans detailing how it would spend at least 50 percent of the $131 million it will receive in transportation-related economic recovery money. (Administration officials said Friday that Maine was also the first state to file for Clean Water Act stimulus funding).
Construction crews are already busy redoing Interstate 295 lanes south of Augusta — a project that state and federal DOT officials said was critical due to worsening structural integrity problems. But the project has angered some Mainers who regularly drive on roads in much more obvious states of disrepair.
One gray area is how, if at all, states will be involved in ensuring the accountability and transparency of stimulus money doled out directly by the federal government, such as the $53 million renovations of Bangor’s federal courthouse.
Low said guidance from Washington on that issue could come Friday. Gov. John Baldacci’s spokesman David Farmer also cited that uncertainty as an example of the challenges of putting in place the transparency and accountability systems when things are in flux.
“I think we have been doing a pretty good job staying on top of it, but you want to stay on top,” Farmer said.
In Washington this week, Sen. Olympia Snowe, R-Maine, introduced legislation to increase accessibility to stimulus funds by adding information such as application deadlines and funding eligibility to the federal Web site, recovery.gov.
Sen. Richard Rosen, a Bucksport Republican who serves on the Legislature’s Appropriations and Financial Affairs Committee, said abuses will inevitably happen across the nation but that no state wants to be caught in that limelight.
“I think we are lucky in Maine that we don’t have some of the corrupt practices that you may see … in some other states,” Rosen said.
Plus, Rosen added, Maine is small enough that everyone knows everybody else and what’s happening in town.
Chances are, Mainers will be watching.
Coming next week
Here’s a sampling of the issues on the Legislature’s agenda next week:
— A hearing Monday on a bill, LD 814, to close the “gun show loophole” that allows private sales of firearms at shows without a background check. The parent of a teenager killed in the Columbine High School shooting in Colorado is expected to address the Criminal Justice and Public Safety Committee.
— A work session on Monday on a slew of bills aiming to increase Maine’s energy independence in the Energy Futures Committee.
— A rally ans public hearing on Monday and work session on Wednesday in the Health and Human Services Committee on a bill, LD 1078, to reform Maine’s long-term care system.
— A public hearing Wednesday in the Marine Resources Committee on a bill, LD 345, to regulate rockweed harvesting in Cobscook Bay.
— Hearings Monday in State and Local Government on bills dealing with size of the Legislature, the length of legislative sessions and term limits.