Colorado’s stimulus team emphasizes transparency, outreach

Although Colorado ranks 46th of the 50 states in federal stimulus spending per capita, according to a report published this week by ProPublica and picked up widely in the media, perhaps more relevant in measuring the effectiveness of the stimulus in the state is a study released earlier this month that ranked the state second in transparency concerning how funds are being used.

<em>Pres. Obama signs the stimulus bill in Denver (aficio2008, Flickr)</em>
Pres. Obama signs the stimulus bill in Denver (aficio2008, Flickr)

The study, conducted by policy research center Good Jobs First, praises Gov. Bill Ritter’s economic recovery team for tracking and disclosing stimulus spending in a way that throws it open for public review. In this case, transparency won’t be merely beneficial in preventing abuse and increasing efficiency, according to one Recovery Team official: It will also likely translate to increased citizen participation in the program and to the kind of spending engineered to produce lasting benefits.

In a recent interview with The Colorado Independent, Recovery Team Communications Director Myung Oak Kim said the high marks in transparency were due to the hard work of team tech guru Chris Smith, director of new media.

“Chris had a very ambitious plan for transparency from the beginning. He wanted to make the [Recovery] site very user friendly and part of that was to include a tracking map. The map just gives you this instant picture of where the money is being spent right across the state.”

Kim, a former Rocky Mountain News reporter, said the governor’s small Recovery team of four started in February and recently added a fifth staffer. The team collects material from a wide variety of sources and feeds it to Smith for the website.

“Our goals are aggressive outreach and transparency. We want to help as many people understand and participate in the program as possible,” she said.

Artificially competitive metrics

Myung Oak Kim
Myung Oak Kim

Kim said that the question stimulus analysts should be asking is not how much money Colorado has received in relation to other states. That line of inquiry, she said, establishes an artificial competitive metric in light of the national goals of the program.

“That question just misses the point. It’s not a race. The question is: Are we using the money to best effect?”

In any list of how well states are weathering the recession, Colorado is a long way from the bottom. The fact that Michigan with its hobbled post-industrial economy or California with its monumental budget shortfall would receive more stimulus money at this point than Colorado only makes sense. (As The Colorado Independent’s sister site in Michigan recently reported, the Great Lakes State received dismally low marks for stimulus transparency in the same report.)

What’s more, the Recovery Act is designed only partly as a short-term relief program. It’s also meant to have long-term economic effects measurable state by state but also for the nation as a whole.

“Perceptions are that [the Recovery Act] throws money at the states to spark growth as fast as possible. But that is a misperception,” Kim said. “This is legislation designed to grow the economy in stages.”

To the extent the stimulus program has so far had an effect, it has been in helping people to merely get by as the nation languishes in the current economic doldrums. It has bolstered food stamp programs and unemployment benefits, for example.

It has also saved jobs by, for instance, keeping public schools and universities open as state budgets have contracted. In the coming months, it will spur job creation through public works projects, including many in the planning stage for months that will now get underway in earnest, transportation construction projects, for example. In the end, however, the stimulus program aims to remake the U.S. economy by accelerating the shift from industries of the past to those that will see continued growth in the future.

It’s that last phase in particular that will not appear in the kind of calculations undertaken by ProPublica for its recent report. Yet it is this last phase that may have the greatest effect, Kim said.

Present unmeasurables

The final round of large stimulus disbursements will come in the form of competitive grants — money basically awarded to promising projects in clean energy, broadband expansion, health industry communications technology and work force training, Kim said.

Colorado stands a good chance of being awarded an outsize percentage of funds in these areas because the state has long been a leader in clean energy and high-tech research and development. Kim argues that this is also where the majority benefits of her team’s efforts at transparency and outreach will come into play.

“You won’t see those awards until 2010. But part of transparency is to help people benefit. Our website presents the program in a very accessible way. Now we’re doing a lot of outreach to help inform people about what’s here and to encourage applicants.”

According to Kim, the team recently contracted with a coordinator for competitive grants to make sure groups in the state know what’s available. Kim has gone to conferences and traveled across Colorado to meet with local governments and businesses. In Durango, she said, officials are pushing hard to win stimulus funds to expand broadband access there. They see it as a first essential step in building a stronger local economy.

The recently hired staffer the Recovery team is dedicated solely to outreach and is scheduled in the coming months to travel to all 64 counties in the state. She will meet with local and minority businesses in each county.

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