States vexed by stimulus challenges

The enormity and complexity of the federal stimulus program are weighing heavily on cash-strapped states that are required to keep track of numerous deadlines and reports for the $49 billion of recovery dollars already starting to flow into states for this year.

In some cases, with key deadlines looming, budget shortfalls have forced states to furlough the very people needed to prevent fraud and waste of the federal windfall.

“At the state level, people are being laid off,” said Jill Satran, Washington Gov. Chris Gregoire’s executive policy adviser, who is responsible for monitoring the state’s stimulus money. “We don’t have the resources to make sure we have all the systems in place and all the procedures are being followed … We are struggling.”

Arizona, Florida, New Jersey, North Carolina and Michigan are among other states where budget cuts could threaten proper oversight of the $275 billion stimulus dollars heading to states, according to a recent 303-page report from the General Accountability Office, the watchdog arm of Congress that is monitoring 16 states’ efforts to use the stimulus money.

“It’s not an option to fail to provide oversight,” said Tom Evslin, who heads up Vermont’s stimulus program for Gov. Jim Douglas. “The question is what else might get starved while you are doing it?”

More than a third of the $787 billion federal economic stimulus package that President Obama signed into law 73 days ago goes to or through states. Most of those stimulus funds ? some $108 billion ? arrives in fiscal 2010, which begins Oct. 1 for the federal government.

Stimulus money is going first to states’ health care and education programs to help forestall cuts in those programs and avoid layoffs of teachers and police officers.”The first $1 billion in Medicaid (stimulus) money we got went immediately to patch (budget) holes,” said Don Winstead, whom Florida Gov. Charlie Crist appointed as the state’s stimulus “czar.”

Winstead joined Evslin of Vermont, Satran of Washington state and several other state recovery officials in Washington, D.C., at an April 29 meeting hosted by the National Governors Association to review stimulus issues with the Obama administration and federal agencies. All three talked with during a break.

“The last thing you need is duplicative or unnecessary or burdensome requirements,” said Ron Naples, who was appointed by Pennsylvania Gov. Ed Rendell as the stimulus’ chief accountability officer and who also attended the meeting. “We’d much rather spend our time getting it right than chasing our tail reporting to everyone,” Naples told

State officials and the GAO have urged Congress to lean on the Obama administration to allow states to use some of the stimulus money on tracking and managing the spending. The stimulus law set aside $250 million for federal agencies to monitor how the money is spent but did not designate similar funds for states. The White House has obliged and will release this month details on that and other issues important to states.

In an April 23 letter, Vice President Joe Biden promised states more guidance by early May that would provide “new flexibilities for states” to cover the costs of administering the funds, for standardizing how to count job creation and for tracking the federal dollars that pass through states to localities, among other things.

California has been promised $260 million in stimulus funds for water projects, including $110 million to build new pumps and fish screens at the Red Bluff Diversion Dam on the Sacramento River and $31 million for safety projects at Folsom Dam.

In Maryland, the Prince George’s County School District, which is facing a $155 million budget gap for next year, will get at least $142 million from the stimulus package over the next two years.

Connecticut will use about $1.5 million in stimulus money to restore 900 acres of degraded wetlands in the lower Connecticut River.

New Jersey will get $160 million in funding to clean up eight Superfund sites, including $25 million to clean up contaminated soil around the former General Gas Mantle facility in Camden and up to $25 million to clean up arsenic sediments at the site of the former Vineland Chemical Co. site, which drains into the Maurice River.

Among transportation projects, Michigan will get $56 million to widen Interstate 94 in Kalamazoo County; New Jersey will get $80 million to repair the South Jersey Expressway; Kansas will get nearly $62 million to fix part of the US-69 Corridor in Overland Park and Lenexa; and Texas will get $50 million to construct a four-lane expressway in Brook County.

Illinois transportation projects include $29 million to replace a bridge and build a new interchange on Interstates 55 and 70 in Madison County and $5.5 million to resurface a portion of Route 137 in northeast Illinois.

Massachusetts used $162 million in federal education recovery funds to restore planned cuts to state and community colleges and the University of Massachusetts system.

Tennessee will distribute $2 million to county programs that provide emergency food and shelter.

Alaska has $4 million to provide vouchers for child care assistance and training for providers and child care programs.

The guidance can’t come fast enough as numerous deadlines await states, including a May 12 deadline for applying for energy and weatherization grants. States receiving transportation funding must make their first report on program spending May 18. And starting July 10, states have to begin providing financial information to, the federal Web site detailing how the stimulus money is being spent.

“The idea of trying to track deadlines has been a major part of all our jobs,” said Satran of Washington.

During an April 23 hearing on Capitol Hill, Sen. Claire McCaskill, D-Mo., and former state auditor, predicted some programs will be overwhelmed with federal dollars and unsure how to spend them. McCaskill pointed in particular to a weatherization program in her state that typically gets $6 million to help low-income families weatherize their homes, but now will get $125 million in stimulus money. Any abuse in one area, such as the weatherization program, “will indict the entire stimulus” package, McCaskill said.

States say they are doing all they can to avoid mismanagement, but say the vastness of the stimulus package may not be fully understood.

“There is a perception that there is one pot of money or a couple pots of money,” Winstead of Florida said. “This is many, many, many pots of money all with their own unique requirements and framework.”

The biggest pot of money being distributed to states focuses on health care. About two-thirds of the $49 billion in stimulus dollars that states get during fiscal 2009 will be used to fund Medicaid, the joint state-federal health insurance program for the poor and disabled. Medicaid rolls in some states are surging as people lose their jobs and consequently their private health insurance.

Winstead said that Florida has received $5 billion in Medicaid and other federal stimulus funds for teachers and police, but said the state is facing a $6 billion deficit, so the state still will have to cut programs or raise taxes to have a balanced budget.

(c) 2009, Source: McClatchy-Tribune Information Services.