March 12, 2010

Maine to closely track stimulus funds

MATT WICKENHEISER

— By

Staff Writer

AUGUSTA — State officials pledged Thursday to set up a transparent process to track how the federal stimulus money is spent in Maine.

Congress is expected to approve a $790 billion stimulus bill today or this weekend, and President Obama has promised to sign it into law.

State officials still don't have exact language from the compromise bill, worked out in House-Senate negotiations, so the amount of money Maine might get is uncertain.

''Our primary focus has been on the process for how we handle the money and less concern for what the final amount will be,'' said David Farmer, deputy chief of staff to Gov. John Baldacci, whose office will oversee how most of the money is spent.

Ryan Low, Baldacci's finance commissioner, said the money coming into the state will be kept in separate accounts for each department. For example, if the state gets $5 million from the stimulus bill for bridge construction, the money would be kept in a Department of Transportation ''bridge stimulus'' account.

''What we wanted to make sure we could do is segregate and follow that federal stimulus dollar as it comes into state government and it goes out of state government,'' Low said.

When agencies want to spend that stimulus money, they will need to file a written request known as a ''financial order,'' which will create a paper trail of how the money is spent, Low said.

Baldacci, Low and State Budget Officer Ellen Schneiter will need to sign off on each order. The orders will then go before the Legislature's Appropriations Committee, which will be able to weigh in on the proposed expenditure, but not block it.

''My hope and understanding is the governor will work closely with the Legislature on both budgeting the money and spending the money,'' said House Speaker Hannah Pingree, D-North Haven.

Farmer said the Governor's Office plans to work with lawmakers. ''We want their input, we want this to be as open as possible and as trackable as possible -- for the Legislature and for individuals,'' he said.

Republican and Democratic legislative leaders have been meeting for several weeks with each other and with the Governor's Office on the process for handling the stimulus money.

The Legislature set up a trust fund for any Medicaid money to come with the stimulus package, giving it some control over how funds will be spent. It's looking to do something similar for any energy-related projects, which will likely be new initiatives and need more legislative oversight, Pingree said.

Senate Republican Leader Kevin Raye, R-Perry, said lawmakers made it clear to the governor that the funds should be spent on infrastructure projects of lasting value. Raye said lawmakers don't want the money spent on programs that would grow state government or prop up existing programs.

Some money might go directly to communities, although how much was unknown Thursday.

Theoretically, local school committees or city councils would have oversight of those funds, although the governor would ultimately be accountable to the federal government for how the money is spent.

''I think we've struck the right balance of oversight, transparency and still staying true to the goal of money in, money out, as soon as possible,'' Low said.

Staff Writer Matt Wickenheiser can be contacted at 791-6316 or at:

mwickenheiser@pressherald.com

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