Las Vegas Sun

July 30, 2014

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STIMULUS:

For Nevada, a late start on managing jump-start

State is behind the curve on planning, monitoring spending

Beyond the Sun

Gov. Jim Gibbons’ proposal to spend a half-million dollars on people to oversee the state’s federal stimulus money raises the question of how prepared Nevada is to handle the $2.2 billion meant to jump-start its economy.

The governor’s plan includes $122,000 for a stimulus “czar” and another $122,000 for a coordinator of health care projects, plus more money for an executive assistant and a computer consultant, according to Robin Reedy, Gibbons’ chief of staff.

But even if the idea to use contingency money for staffing a stimulus czar office is approved today by the state Board of Examiners and next week by the Legislative Interim Finance Committee, the overseers won’t start work until August at the earliest, at least six months into the 18-month window for uses of the money to be mapped out, if not for it to be spent. That leaves Nevada hiring an outside czar months later than most states.

Meanwhile, a watchdog group plans to issue a report Wednesday about states’ Web-site tracking of stimulus money. The report ranks Nevada 34th nationwide for the quality and usefulness of its site.

Phil Mattera of States for a Transparent and Accountable Recovery said he was “not overwhelmed with the results” of Nevada’s digital record-keeping.

He said a comprehensive, user-friendly site is vital to understanding what is happening with “a lot of money being spent in many ways that impact everybody.”

The underlying principle, after all, is that “people deserve to know how successful the stimulus funds have been,” Mattera said.

Gibbons’ $534,000 proposal includes money for improvements to the Web site, Reedy said.

Still, the proposal and condition of the Web site suggest the state is late in taking control of the stimulus money, meant to be a vital tool for mending an economy in free-fall.

Reedy, who took over the job of coordinating the stimulus money in recent weeks from Mendy Elliot, former deputy chief of staff for Gibbons, said Nevada officials were occupied with legislators untangling a $900 million budget shortfall during the time span stimulus money began flowing. The four-month legislative session ended June 1.

She said the governor’s office now considers an outside overseer necessary because state agencies are burdened by tightened budgets and can’t adequately track an additional $2.2 billion, the sum of the original $1.45 billion appropriation plus money for unemployment benefits and public safety.

“For quite some time we have been trying to pull people from (state) divisions” to work on the stimulus money, she said. “(But) it’s become hard to perform core functions.”

Chris Whatley, Washington director for the Council of State Governments, said “the vast majority of states have already hired” consultants to help monitor the funds. But, he said, “if a state is going to make a change” in the way it is dealing with the money, “it isn’t a bad time,” noting that states have until Oct. 10 to report to the federal government on plans to spend stimulus money.

Reedy said Nevada would have to meet that deadline “the old-fashioned way,” by gathering data on paper instead of online.

She acknowledged that observers may question “whether this is being handled well or as quickly as possible.”

She noted that Nevada, like other states, only recently received federal guidelines on spending the money. State policymakers have been debating the pros and cons of moving quickly versus waiting for clear instructions.

This is what Jake Wiens, investigator at the Washington, D.C.-based Project on Government Oversight, called “having to balance getting things done quickly and getting things done right, to minimize waste, fraud and abuse.”

Come October, Nevadans should have a clearer sense of how quick and right we have been.

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