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Following the money will be the hard part

Obama says he wants the public to know exactly where the stimulus aid is going. But watchdogs complain that the White House disclosure guidelines have loopholes.

March 21, 2009|Paul West

WASHINGTON — Barack Obama says unprecedented transparency will be a hallmark of his presidency. But following the money in the stimulus package won't be easy.

Many of the most important spending decisions aren't being made in Washington. They're getting thrashed out at state and local levels, where accountability is a wild card and there's no guarantee that taxpayers will get the dollar-by-dollar information Obama is promising.

In some cases, money that goes to a local government may be impossible to follow under White House guidelines, advocates of open government say.

"It could go to the mayor's brother-in-law. We don't know," said Craig Jennings of OMB Watch, a Washington-based watchdog group.

It is up to the states, for example, to decide how to divvy up the $28 billion for "shovel-ready" highway projects.

In Maryland, for example, none of the funding that will flow to subcontractors on highway projects will be disclosed, said David Buck, a State Highway Administration spokesman. The state also doesn't provide detailed information about the location of most resurfacing projects, which will account for the largest share of highway spending under the stimulus plan.

Under the Obama administration's transparency guidelines, "the money disappears after it changes hands twice," said Greg LeRoy of Good Jobs First, a watchdog group.

As things stand, the federal government will disclose how much money it gives to a state, and the state must report back on how the money is distributed to a private company or to a local government. Beyond that point, there is no requirement for disclosing where the money ends up, LeRoy said.

His group is part of the Coalition for an Accountable Recovery, which has warned there could be "corruption on a massive scale" as stimulus and financial bailout funds are spent.

The "only antidote is millions of eyeballs watching the money," LeRoy said, referring to ordinary citizens tracking the spending on government websites.

Obama emphasized transparency in his 2008 campaign and is continuing that theme.

"Instead of politicians doling out money behind closed doors, the important decisions about where taxpayer dollars are invested will be yours to scrutinize," Obama says on recovery.gov, an administration website.

Some states have created stimulus websites, but at least 18 -- including California -- have not.

Pennsylvania Gov. Edward G. Rendell said states should go the extra mile in laying out exactly how federal money gets spent, even if it means providing more information than the administration requires.

"I think this is the biggest test of government in my lifetime," the 65-year-old Democrat, who also chairs the National Governors Assn., told a group of reporters.

"I don't want people to say, 'You hid this. You hid that,' " he said. "Regardless of the federal requirement, I'm hopeful that a lot of us will try to make this the most transparent, because it's important."

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paul.west@baltsun.com

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