Recovery Act oversight raises concerns

Posted July 26, 2009, at 7:56 p.m.

AUGUSTA, Maine — Members of the Legislature’s Appropriations Committee reviewed and allocated nearly $4.5 billion in federal funds in the two-year state budget now in effect, but a lot of the federal funds flowing into the state under the American Recovery and Reinvestment Act are not part of that review.

“I have multiple concerns about the ARRA or stimulus money both meeting their intended purposes and the extent to which they are bypassing state budgeting processes,” said Rep. Sawin Millett, R-Waterford. “I am comfortable about those chunks that have gone through this committee and the budgeting process, but that is only part of the money coming into the state.”

Millett, a former state finance commissioner and the GOP lead on the committee, said the panel did carefully review the use of additional Medicaid funds and grants for education under the Recovery Act, which is about half of the estimated $1.4 billion expected to come to the state.

But he is “very concerned” at the lack of review of projects directly funded by the federal government with no oversight or review by the state.

“There is not a lot of evidence that there is tracking or integration, or accountability for how that money is used,” he said.

Rep. Emily Cain, D-Orono, co-chair of the panel, said that while the Web sites at both the state and federal level promise transparency, that is not a substitute for review of the additional federal spending in the context of state spending in an area.

“Where we could, we have carefully reviewed the grants with future budgetary implications,” she said. “We dealt carefully with the COPS grants and discussed it with the Criminal Justice Committee because it does have cost in the future.”

The Maine State Police have sought to fund hiring additional troopers through the Recovery Act, but while the federal funds would pay for the cost for three years, the measure requires the state to pay the fourth year of the costs of the positions. About $1 billion is available, with more than $8 billion in requests from law enforcement agencies, so the state police do not know if they will get any funding under the program.

Sen. Bill Diamond, D-Windham, co-chair of the panel, said the lack of review of some of the ARRA money coming into the state is a worry. He said the state is doing a good job of tracking and reviewing funds coming through state government agencies.

“The other monies that are coming in, not being watched over, that is a recipe for disaster I think, “He said.

Diamond said that as the committee meets through the summer and fall seeking to find ways to reduce state spending, it also will take time to hear updates on recovery funds and how they are being used.

“I don’t think a lot of people understand that not all of the Recovery Act money goes through the state,” said Sen. Richard Rosen, R-Bucksport. “There is a lot of concern in my area about the federal building in Bangor, but that was all a federal decision.”

He said that even though that funding is outside of the oversight of state government, he said Mainers should be able to access information about the project.

Finance Commissioner Ryan Low said federal officials have assured him they plan to put information on all spending on the federal recovery Web site.

“They are talking about having everything on the site with a function that allows someone to find out about all spending in a state or community,” he said, “but I don’t think they have said when that will happen.”

Low agrees with the concerns raised by committee members. He said his office often hears about Recovery Act direct grants when a news release comes from a federal agency or the congressional delegation.

“We would argue those are still tax dollars,” he said. “Folks should have easy access to that information, and currently the only way to get that information is to compile all of the press releases.”

Millett said simply having the information available for the public is not a substitute for a review process by elected officials and staff trained with analyzing programs and assessing whether they are meeting their goals.

“It’s not telling the average Maine citizen what is happening,” he said. “That takes some analysis, not just numbers.”

Information about the American Recovery and Reinvestment Act is available at www.recovery.gov. Details of Recovery Act funds going to Maine are available at www.maine.gov/recovery.

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