Economic stimulus task force in California seeks to maximize funding and sort out monitoring and transparency details.
It's clear that the billions of economic stimulus dollars flowing to states and localities will be under a microscope for possible waste and abuse. But state officials say they're still waiting for details on how to track and report the spending of those funds.
"I think that's one of the things that all of us are challenged with," said California CIO Teri Takai. "There are notes flying back and forth among states asking each other what they've set up. And I've got vendors sending me notes like mad offering to help. I'm still trying figure out what I have to report, how much reporting is going to be done through normal channels and how much reporting needs to be done separately."
Takai is a member of California Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger's Economic Stimulus Task Force, an organization created last week to maximize the state's share of stimulus dollars and to sort out tracking requirements and other details associated with using the money.
Among the questions: How to keep the governor's office apprised of funds flowing directly to state agencies? Also, what new types of reporting will be required, and who pays the cost of state and local tracking and transparency efforts?
Earlier this month, Vice President Joseph Biden signaled the importance of avoiding any hint of scandal connected to stimulus spending.
"If we don't get this right, folks, this is the end of the opportunity to convince Congress that anything should go to the states," Biden told state government officials attending a March 12 economic stimulus implementation conference in Washington, D.C. "Six months from now, if the verdict on this effort is that we've wasted the money ... don't look for any help from the federal government for a long time."
Takai said Schwarzenegger's economic stimulus panel will focus on making sure stimulus money is used appropriately and effectively. The panel includes representatives from the governor's office, department of finance, health and human services, transportation, environmental protection, education and work force development.
"We want make sure that we're ultra-squeaky clean. The governor feels that it's extremely important," said Takai, who will lead the state's information-gathering and transparency efforts.
Takai's job is complicated by the fact that reporting requirements for stimulus spending remain hazy -- and much of the stimulus money is flowing directly to state agencies. For instance, California's Department of Transportation (Caltrans) will receive millions of dollars directly from the Federal Highway Administration, and Caltrans will report spending of those funds directly back to the Highway Administration.
Doug Robinson, executive director of the National Association of State Chief Information Officers, said CIOs face a challenge in keeping their governors in the loop on stimulus spending.
"There's no requirement for centralized reporting through the governor's office or anywhere else," he said. "So what CIOs and administrations are trying to figure out is, 'How do you get dual reporting so the governor's office knows what's being reported to the federal government?'"
Takai said the trick is figuring out how to keep an eye on the money -- and comply with any new reporting requirements -- without slowing the flow of dollars into the state's economy.
"The role of this task force isn't to add another layer of bureaucracy, but to make sure the state meets the requirements. It's not to say that agencies aren't going to comply, but we're going to be particularly careful about meeting the president's desire to ensure transparency and accountability," she said. "We're hearing that some of the dollars coming down -- even though they're coming down through the normal channels -- may require additional reporting. But we have not been given that direction yet."
California officials don't expect one definitive statement on stimulus reporting rules from the federal government. Instead, details will emerge on a program-by-program basis, Takai said.
She recently raised some of the reporting questions with auditors from the U.S. Government Accountability Office (GAO). Audit teams from the agency will be stationed in California and 15 other states for the next several years to monitor stimulus spending and the results it produces.
"I felt the GAO was very cooperative. They came out early so they could hear what we thought about the issues and challenges," Takai said. "The final decisions rest with OMB [Office of Management and Budget]. But we gave them input they could take back to OMB."
Another question is who pays for stepped-up reporting and transparency efforts triggered by the stimulus package. Like nearly 40 other states, California has launched a special Web site to show citizens how stimulus dollars are being spent. For now, California is adding up the costs of its monitoring and accountability activities in the hope that federal funds will pick up at least part of the tab.
"In some areas, we have heard that there may be dollars for administrative support," Takai said. "But we don't think those dollars are very large, and it's not clear to us where they are."