In 2009, when the federal government began pouring billions into Texas via the American Recovery and Reinvestment Act, or “stimulus package,” the Legislature made a visible effort to monitor its implementation — or at least the House did, setting up a special committee to monitor the funds.
Two years later, money from the three-year federal stimulus is still flowing to the Lone Star State, but interest in the Legislature seems to have declined. Speaker Joe Straus did not resurrect the House Select Committee on Federal Economic Stabilization Funding, and the heavy hand at its helm — former state Rep. Jim Dunnam, D-Waco — failed to win re-election.
During his days as select committee chairman, Dunnam set up a website — txstimulus.com — to provide documents and information on stimulus spending, culled from the committee’s hearings and correspondence with the Texas congressional delegation. In March, the domain, which was registered in Dunnam’s name, lapsed, taking all the information it contained therein.
Enter Bee Moorhead, executive director of Texas Impact, a statewide interfaith organization, and the new owner of txstimulus.com. “Legislative committees can use the internet really effectively, and there are great examples of committees doing that this year," said Moorhead, citing efforts of the Senate Business and Commerce Committee, "but those websites contain government information, and they can’t just be handled like some individual’s blog.”
Moorhead is using the site to host Texas Impact’s soon-to-be announced report on the stimulus implementation thus far, titled “It Ain’t Over Till It’s Over.” The report contains a list of recommendations for ongoing management of stimulus funds, among them: drawing down $555 million in still-available unemployment insurance funds that Gov. Rick Perry famously rejected, reconstituting the select committee and protecting the integrity of state government-related websites going forward.
“The truth is,” Moorhead said, “the last of this money won’t be spent until April 2013. The Legislature will be in session again when the last agency is spending the last of its money.”
Dunnam, who is now heading up the newly formed Austin-based Texas First Foundation, said he’s not sure if there’s enough work for a select committee, but he agrees that legislators should be watching the stimulus spending. In fact, the last recommendation in his committee’s final interim report read as follows:
“The Texas House should continue to monitor the use by state agencies of ARRA funds. Problems were recognized throughout the tenure of the Select Committee, and Select Committee continual monitoring appears to have maintained a higher level of diligence by State Agencies in their accountability.”
The select committee’s charge was to make recommendations to the House Appropriations Committee, which always had ultimate jurisdiction over the implementation of stimulus money. Even though the select committee expired, the House Appropriations Committee’s jurisdiction has not.
Appropriations Chairman Jim Pitts, R-Waxahachie, currently grappling with a dramatic budget shortfall, referred questions about the stimulus to the Legislative Budget Board. A spokesman for the budget board said the extent of its current stimulus-related effort is taking receipt of agencies’ quarterly expenditure reports and posting them online without fanfare.
It’s a far cry from the high drama of the often tense back and forth between Dunnam and agency heads like Texas Department of Transportation Executive Director Amadeo Saenz.
“That fact that we were having these hearings kept agencies on their toes,” Dunnam recalled. While the way the stimulus was appropriated can’t be changed, he said, lawmakers could still make sure the money isn’t being wasted.
In the absence of a select committee, Moorhead is pushing for similar hearings to be held by another committee or even the Legislative Budget Board itself.
“The stimulus pointed out structural flaws in the leadership structures we have for managing our fiscal condition,” Moorhead said, placing most of the blame at legislators’ feet. While Comptroller Susan Combs caught flack for her approach to the stimulus, Moorhead said, “The comptroller’s efforts have been hampered by the lack of data legislators required in the first place. She can’t report data that’s not there."
Much of the agenda of state Sen. Kirk Watson, D-Austin, is focused on making budget processes more transparent and interactive for the public. Moorhead hopes that such legislation helps the state make changes she believes are necessary for taking note of and making the state attractive for the stimulus funds that continue to be and those that could become available.
“We are a donor state,” Moorhead said. “We should always be looking for a way to get the money somebody else doesn’t want.”