President Barack Obama issued a stern warning to governor-appointed recovery czars at a recent meeting in Washington, D.C.: "If we see money being misspent, we're going to put a stop to it." Vice President Joe Biden, placed in charge by the president, seconded that view when he stated, "If we do not get this right, folks, this is the end of the ability to convince Congress that anything should go to the states."
Not only did the stimulus law provide substantial additional funds to the inspector generals of several federal agencies to find waste, fraud and abuse, but there is a new Recovery Act Transparency and Accountability Board with responsibility for oversight. Also, the General Accountability Office has staff in 16 states performing audits and reporting to Congress every several months. Finally, the Committee on Homeland Security and Governmental Affairs in the U.S. Senate has already had an oversight hearing and the House Transportation Committee has both requested information from states and held an oversight hearing.
This unprecedented amount of publicly available data, information, and scrutiny can be an important teachable moment for our nation. Every citizen has the opportunity to follow the money and monitor results with each state posting online everything from budgets and contracts to travel expenses.
The ultimate accountability for governors will be the 2010 election, when 36 seats are up for election and 21 are able to run for another term. However, the calendar may not be a governor's friend. Some of the most tangible benefits in the stimulus, like health information technology and broadband expansions and alternative energy sources, won't take effect until after the 2010 election cycle.
The new transparency and accountability standards will provide a raft of information for use in the gubernatorial campaigns. And as Mark Twain said, bad news travels halfway around the world before good news even gets its shoes on. The gravitational pull toward distortions and a disproportionate focus on the negative could present an unfortunate setback for transparency and accountability. For the sake of good government and an informed democracy, let's hope the media and voters consider the size and scope of the challenge states face in implementing the law and helping to engineer a recovery.
Raymond Scheppach, Ph.D., is the executive director of the National Governors Association. The views expressed here are those of the author and do not necessarily represent those of the National Governors Association.