New Report Details How Lone Star Legislators Did Away With Lone Stimulus Committee

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(This post originally appeared on the States for a Transparent and Accountable Recovery blog)

Texas officials are nowhere near finished with the massive endeavor of spending the state’s share of the Recovery Act pie, but the state’s House of Representatives has apparently lost its appetite for systematically keeping track of the process.  In a report titled, “It Ain’t Over Till It’s Over: The Texas Legislature and the American Reinvestment and Recovery Act,” interfaith group Texas Impact recounts how the state legislative committee that monitored the use of stimulus funds has been disbanded and its website has expired.

For nearly two years, Texas legislators made a gallant effort to keep stimulus dollars openly accountable and transparent.

Led by State Representative Jim Dunnam, the Select Committee on Federal Economic Stabilization Funding held 26 public hearings and put out 60 bi-weekly updates on implementation of the Recovery Act in Texas, according to an interim report the committee published in December 2010.  The committee published each of these “Chairman’s Updates”—as well as several reports the Committee authored and all documents the Committee prepared for hearings—on a website registered in Dunnam’s name.  Dunnam also appointed sub-committees focusing on education, energy and transportation.

Among the actions undertaken by the select committee were questioning Texas transportation officials about whether they attempted to target funds for economically-distressed areas (they didn’t); pushing officials to pick up the pace by which they use stimulus funds to weatherize homes; “quiz[zing]” the state’s Deputy Comptroller about problems with its stimulus-funded appliance rebate program; and asking the Texas Department of Transportation to explain why a majority of the state’s Recovery Act funds allocated for highways and bridges had not yet been spent as of last fall.

Clearly, the select committee was making its presence felt, and interested citizens could follow the action on the committee’s website.

But Dunnam failed to win reelection last year, and in December 2010, Texas Speaker Joe Straus chose to discontinue the committee.  Then, in March, the domain name of the committee website expired and the information published on it was suddenly no longer publicly available.  (The ARRA website that was established by the Texas State Comptroller—and evaluated by Good Jobs First in both versions of our “Show Us the Stimulus” report—is still active).

The “missing website” episode typifies Texas Impact’s central criticism of those state legislators still in office: they have “for the most part … moved on” from watching how state agencies use federal stimulus funds even though the Recovery Act is still playing a major role in the state.

Texas Impact concluded that even though the Recovery Act has created or saved more than 236,000 jobs in Texas and “ensured the availability of core public services,” state legislators are not doing enough to “maximize ARRA’s benefit to Texas.” The group cites “strategic investment, accountability and transparency” as areas where the politicians aren’t up to par.

The report includes ten recommendations for how legislators can “re-engage ARRA and take every remaining opportunity to maximize Texas’ strategic use of ARRA dollars.”  High on the list: the Texas House should reconstitute the Recovery Act monitoring committee and ensure that it continues until ARRA funds have been exhausted and a final evaluation of the entire process has occurred.

Texas Impact also urges lawmakers to modify the state’s calculation of unemployment benefits so that Texas can collect $555 million in stimulus funds for unemployment insurance that Gov. Rick Perry rejected in 2009.  As Good Jobs First recently documented in our March report, “Slashing Subsidies, Bolstering Budgets,” Texas has taken at least $162 million from the state’s Unemployment Insurance fund to pay for the Texas Enterprise Fund, a bloated corporate subsidy program that has all too often failed to deliver on promised job creation. The raid on UI funds helped Texas deliberately keep its unemployment trust fund low, which forced the state to borrow $1.3 billion in 2009 to keep the fund afloat.

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