Downturn Creates State Spending ‘Czars’

By: - April 9, 2009 12:00 am

What do a real estate developer, a child welfare expert, a chief justice and a former U.S. diplomat who served in Japan all have in common? They are state stimulus “czars” who are overseeing the spending of billions of recovery dollars flowing into Massachusetts, Florida, Alabama and Ohio.

The federal stimulus law doesn’t require states to appoint point people or spell out their duties, but the Obama administration, which has czars for health care, energy, illegal drugs and even for cities, has asked states to name “implementation czars” as watchdogs for their share of the federal stimulus package. States are getting billion of the total billion economic stimulus package, which is aimed at jolting the country out of recession.

The czars’ responsibilities vary from state to state, ranging from heading up task forces that will plan where the state will spend the stimulus money to monitoring how the money is spent.

Governors are free to tap whomever they want for the post – if anyone at all. In Montana, the budget director, David Ewer, is the point of contact for the stimulus, but Gov. Brian Schweitzer (D) didn’t specifically appoint him the czar. “We don’t have a stimulus czar,” Sarah Elliot, the governor’s spokesperson, said. “The Legislature appropriates funds, not the governor,” she explained.

Montana is among at least a dozen states with budget or chief operating officers as the point person for the state’s stimulus funds. Others include Idaho, Illinois, Maine, Minnesota, Missouri, Nebraska, North Dakota, Oklahoma, South Dakota, Tennessee and Washington.

Advocates for open government say these czars should have broad experience in federal-state relations and budgeting and management, but they concede politics may play a role. “We’re cautiously optimistic,” said Greg Leroy, executive director of Good Jobs First, who said he expects some governors will name people who can help them with their re-election in 2010. His group is a member of the Coalition for an Accountable Recovery, which is monitoring the recovery spending.

David Adkins, executive director of the Council of State Governments, said governors are appointing recovery czars who understand that the “political risk” from the stimulus has shifted from the federal government to them. “You see lieutenant governors emerging as economic recovery czars – someone with a stake in the politics but also in a position of authority,” he said. Delaware and Kansas have both gone that route.

In California, Republican Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger tapped Cynthia Bryant, his deputy chief of staff, as the stimulus czar. He named Los Angeles City Controller Laura Chick as the first-in-the-nation “inspector general” to serve as a watchdog. “I am coming to Sacramento to deter, detect and disclose any waste, fraud and abuse of these precious stimulus dollars,” Chick said when she was appointed.

Other governors who have turned to their own executive staffs to head up the stimulus efforts include those in Connecticut, Kentucky, Michigan, Mississippi, New Jersey, New York, Rhode Island and Virginia.

Some states, including Georgia and Idaho, are loath to use the term “czar.” A spokesman for Georgia Gov. Sonny Perdue (R) said of Celeste Osborn, deputy chief financial officer, the state’s point person for the stimulus: “We’re certainly not calling her a czar.”

States’ Web sites for tracking stimulus money vary as much as the czars. More than a dozen states already had searchable, free online databases of their budgets and spending and another 10 were considering developing them. So the question for these states was whether to develop new sites specifically for the stimulus money or to incorporate the stimulus into their existing sites.

“That was a challenge,” said Doug Robinson, executive director of the National Association of State Chief Information Officers.

See Related Stories:

Tracking the recession – Much ado about a small stimulus pot (4/6/2009)

Rejecting stimulus funds: Pros and Cons (3/27/2009)

Govs split over expanding jobless benefits (2/26/2009)

Obama, governors try to patch stimulus split (2/23/2009)

Tracking the recession: Lowering expectations (2/23/2009)

Governors downplay stimulus rift (2/22/2009)

Stimulus to ease, not fix, state budget woes (2/14/2009)

Governors to track stimulus money (2/10/2009)

Sanford fights bailout for states (12/12008)

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