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Shining a Light on State Spending

A lot of chatter has been circulating around the lack of transparency in how stimulus funds are being distributed, the process of determining who gets money and who does not, and why.

Among questions about job creation – or the lack thereof – more and more people are also starting to wonder why one group is chosen to receive stimulus funds over another group. What is the decision-making process used by elected officials? How are they picking the winners and losers—and do we really want government picking the winners and losers?

Last week, Jay Levine of CBS ran a story about the Lawndale Christian Health Center of Chicago, IL getting $10 million in stimulus funds, which U.S. Senator Dick Durbin (IL) announced in a press release on December 9, 2009. Perhaps the Lawndale Christian Health Center is a great place, and maybe this stimulus money will actually create jobs.

But job creation is not the issue this time around. Some people raised concern when they discovered the founder of the Lawndale Health Center, Dr. Art Jones, turned out to be a one thousand dollar contributor to Senator Durbin’s campaign.

The amount sounds nominal to some – to others, not. However, the issue also isn’t about how much or how little this contribution to Senator Durbin equals. The concern rests in why the Health Center received the stimulus money over, say, another struggling health center in Illinois or an entirely different type of organization altogether.

Questions surround the stimulus distribution, especially when we hear about projects with ties to politicians, such as Hillary Clinton, whose pollster in 2008, Mark Penn, received $6 million in stimulus money to his two firms. That’s a nice perk.

Not only are we seeing questionable stimulus gifts potentially wrapped up in political favors, but wasteful grants as well. For example, why did almost $650 thousand in stimulus money go to a public housing parking lot in Macomb, IL—a parking lot that nobody in the community wants? The parking lot, intended to “benefit” residents in the Macomb community, met protests. One local resident there explained, “The kids love the grass. We’ve got enough pavement here.”

That’s a main difference between letting an entrepreneur keep his money and invest in his business, which grows, and then needs more employees to support his growing business. That’s job creation. Not an empty parking lot.

Or, how about the Department of Homeland Security awarding nearly $1 million to Entertainment Cruises to step up its security efforts? Its vice president, Gary Frommel, remarked it was unusual for his company to get terrorism-prevention funding, "We feel that we're really a low threat for a terrorist incident. But the stimulus was a nice perk."

Although we don’t have much transparency or understanding regarding the doling out of stimulus funds, you can see how Illinois is spending plain old tax dollars by checking out the Illinois Policy Institute’s transparency website, www.IllinoisOpenGov.org, which provides information on state spending and aims to hold its elected officials more accountable with their spending decisions. IllinoisOpenGov.org currently lists payroll, pension and checks to businesses and people. On the site you can find, for example, the Department of Employment Security spent $2,220 on a bathroom air freshener service from Fikes Fresh Brands in Indiana. Or how about golf carts for government? In 2008, the Department of Commerce and Economic Opportunity (DCEO) spent $3,770 on golf cart rentals and permits. Subscriptions? Illinois state government has a variety. The Illinois Department of Transportation spent $348,829.69 on "Subscriptions" in 2009, which includes $900 on the Chicago Tribune, $570 on 3E Company Inc., and $5,400 for XM Satellite Radio Inc.

And who doesn’t need hot sauce? Or a good old party? In 2008, the DCEO spent $2,520 on 84 cases of hot sauce and an extra $302 in freight charges for the hot sauce. The DCEO also spent $10,000 on a "fee for agency participation in Dark Knight Gala" in Chicago. The Dark Knight Gala honored Christopher Nolan, the director of the most recent Batman films, and included a screening of The Dark Knight and a dinner reception.

The stimulus process may lack transparency and accountability, but the Illinois Policy Institute is working hard to make Illinois tax dollars as transparent as possible at the state spending level by creating IllinoisOpenGov.org.

More transparency is needed in the process of stimulus distribution. Tax dollars should not be used as political paybacks to friendly campaign contributors or wasted on projects that do not “create” jobs—or, for that matter, that “give” to communities that do not want the project in the first place. The good news is that we’re shining the light on state spending to work towards a better, more accountable government spending process.

Kate Campaigne Piercy is the director of government reform for the Illinois Policy Institute.

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