This week, we heard another story of stimulus fraud sending millions of dollars to nonexistent zip codes. Prior to that, Americans learned that funding was going to fake congressional districts. Then Senators McCain and Coburn’s released a report that highlighted 100 wasteful projects in the stimulus. I can’t be the only one outraged that digging for dinosaurs in Argentina and sending college students from Alaska to the Copenhagen conference were approved programs.
Seeing the waste on the national level made me question what’s going on locally. Finding out exactly where are taxpayer dollars have gone is critical to ensure that nothing like this bill ever passes again. It’s not enough for the national media or top bloggers to pick out a few egregious examples of stimulus waste. Politicians need to hear from their constituents.
That’s where we come in. Bloggers and activists in every town and county throughout the country need to keep an eye on stimulus funding. It’s up average taxpayers like you and me to make sure that no fraud is going on in our communities.
How do we start?
The Recovery Act promised transparency to the American people, yet how many Americans have taken time to sift through all of the grants, loans and awards? Do you know what’s going on in your backyard?
Recovery.gov is the official site that documents and tracks all stimulus funds. From the homepage, you can search by Zip code, or you can download detailed information about awarded grants in your community or state. These searches provide the most basic information about what’s going on in your area.
If you really want to dig into data, visit the Recovery.gov Download Center and look at spreadsheets that indentify organizations and contacts for all of the awarded grants.
A number of watchdog sites have emerged that track stimulus projects and are easier to use than Recovery.gov. At StimulusWatch.org, you can search by project, agency, state, city, zip code and keyword. I was able to pull up all of the projects in my hometown of Chattanooga, Tenn. Thankfully, all of the projects seem to be legitimate and fall within the parameters of the Recovery Act.
StimulusWatch.org is built as a wiki, so users can vote a project up or down and track the most wasteful project, such as “Explaining the African Vote” project at the University of California, San Diego. They received $233,823 to conduct exit polls in sub-Sarahan Africa.
ProPublica also created a Recovery Tracker. Unlike the other two sites, ProPublica also releases information on businesses that obtained loans through the stimulus. For example, the new Melting Pot in Chattanooga borrowed $684,000.
All of this information can get confusing. While some projects stand out, such as a $950,000 grant to colleges in Arizona to study ants, what is the difference between a grant, contract and loan? How do we know if it should be funded by the stimulus?
According to Recovery.gov, the stimulus aims to
- Create new jobs as well as save existing ones
- Spur economic activity and invest in long-term economic growth
- Foster unprecedented levels of accountability and transparency in government spending
How does this work?
After the stimulus was passed, Congress allocated a set amount of funds to different federal agencies. These agencies then established requests for proposals or grant opportunities. These can be accessed through Grants.gov or Recovery.gov. Another pot of money was allocated for states, which turned it over to state agencies to either directly use or create sub-grants.
Often, this is where the waste starts.
Since the federal government allocated funds to various government agencies, the agencies are actually the ones making the grants and distributing funds. This means that the kids who got a free trip to the Climate Change were accountable to the National Science Foundation not the Obama Administration. Many of the questionable grants were awarded through government agencies like the National Science Foundation or the Institutes of Health. These are huge bureaucratic entities, and once they got control of the money there was no accountability.
Since many of the contracts and loans are also awarded by smaller agencies, it’s difficult to track where the money is going. Available contracts are listed on Recovery.gov and the site posts winning contractors. Loans are not as transparent, and ProPublica is the only site that I’ve seen include loans with community information.
What Can You Do?
Tracking stimulus funding in your community is the perfect activity for bloggers, local tea parties or concerned activities. Once you’ve researched the information, there are a number of ways that you can use it to raise awareness or hold your local, state and national elected officials accountable:
- Create a local Google Map of all the projects
- Write a blog post
- Write letters to the editor of your newspaper
- Write or call your local Congressman or Senator
- Create fliers about any questionable projects to hand out at local GOP meetings or Tea Party events
- Contact local media outlets about projects that need attention
The next Recovery.gov filing deadline is January 30, so get ready for another round of stories about government waste.