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I Think I See The Problem — Why Now?
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I Think I See The Problem

Over in the Business section of MSNBC they have this article, States spending money to keep stimulus funds, that essentially is a lot of kvetching by various states that they don’t have the money to do all of the reporting that the Federal government wants in return for millions of dollars in stimulus.

There is this ancient practice called “double entry bookkeeping” that deals with the transparency issues for business and shows you where the money is coming from, and where it is going to, so you know how the business is doing. The people who do this are called bookkeepers and they really aren’t that well paid, so you should be able to hire a few.

If you are running a state, you should already have some of these people in your employ, and since you are spending tax dollars, you should already have transparent programs in place. These are normal procedures to prevent waste and fraud. If your state doesn’t already do this, you might want to vote for different people at the next election.

Why don’t these people suck it up and pick up a copy of Quickbooks, or some other accounting program. People have a right to know where their money is going, and governments at all levels should be able to tell them. This program is about creating jobs to a great extent, so you are going to have to be able to say how many jobs were created [I’m sure the companies that get the contracts will know.]

They want the Feds to hire web site designers and PR people. The states should already have these kinds of people on staff, if they are providing transparency for their taxpayers.

What’s with these whiners, are they looking for Federal financed jobs for relatives that got laid off? This is really pathetic.


1 Badtux { 04.19.09 at 11:28 pm }

Thing is, Bryan, it isn’t that simple. I’ve had to deal with federal reporting requirements before, mostly dealing with school lunch programs and special education funding. They weren’t satisfied with knowing that they sent you X dollars for food and you spent X+Y dollars for food (where Y was local funding from school lunch fees for the non-free-and-reduced-lunch kids). They wanted a list of every free and reduced lunch student. WITH their social security numbers. WITH complete records of what days they actually ate lunch. WITH documentation of eligibility criteria for each child. IN electronic format, in some godawful EDI format that made no sense at all to anybody but a 100 year old COBOL geek. So that they could make sure that their X dollars of school lunch money paid for lunch only for those exact enumerated children, not for any others. To handle this, the rural school district in question had to spend tens of thousands of dollars of local money on computers and software for its three schools to handle free and reduced lunch students (this in a school district with 5,000 students and total local sales tax collections of roughly $1M/year as its only local source of funding).

In other words, you’re grossly underestimating the effort that the Feds require on the part of locals in order to get federal funding. I can’t complain too much — it paid my salary for four years, after all (I handled federal data compliance for a coalition of rural school districts during that time, including writing software to massage their internal data into whatever form the #$%@! Feds wanted at any given time which was *never* anything as simple as a CSV flat file), but it was — and is — a major expense, because the Feds are never satisfied with simple accounting of $X dollars in, $Y dollars out. They want to know details about actual individuals that the money is going to. If, for example, they’re sending money to extend unemployment benefits, they aren’t going to be satisfied with $X dollars in, $X+Y dollars out… they’re going to want the complete unemployment file of those people, in Federal EDI format (whatever some 100 year old COBOL geek dreamed up 15 years ago the last time EDS updated the Fed’s program), plus some new fields not already contained in the current EDI format just because EDS’s fresh-out-of-vocational-school Indian programmers (or whoever is doing the vending for this program for the Feds) are too stupid to know how to compute those new fields based upon the current fields. That’s just how they operate. I’m very, very, VERY happy to no longer have to deal with that nonsense (and it really is nonsense, in the four years I was doing that, the Feds changed their data format for our reporting purposes three times, generally with about three weeks’ notice before the start of the school year).

So the states aren’t complaining just to complain. It really is a significant expense, and it’s an unfunded one. I won’t divulge how much those school districts were paying the consulting firm that I worked for in order to do their federal data compliance, but it was not an insignificant sum of money…

2 Bryan { 04.20.09 at 12:20 am }

I have written a lot of code for compliance with Federal regulations, and I know that it can be burdensome, but the complaints I’m hearing in Florida are that it has to be transparent, and the Florida legislature really doesn’t like transparency.

We deal with FEMA all the time and have systems in place for complying with their weird requests, and some of these requests are weird, [like the certification that debris haulers have tailgates and top tarps].

This isn’t a long term project like school lunches that gets more Byzantine with each passing year, the reporting is rather straight forward on the stimulus funds because Congress hasn’t had time to play with it. If the program continues, it will be a PITA like all Federal programs, but in its first iteration, it really isn’t that bad, but there are time limits and the need to be transparent.

Things are not likely to get to the level of having to find a working Burroughs 8-inch hard-sectored diskette drive to submit the data [an actual IRS requirement for a long time, as the only substitute for an EBCDIC 9-track tape].

The real problem is that states don’t have a central contract compliance organization. The transportation department is probably the only state office that is sure to have one. Too many states, like Florida don’t do oversight, and now they need it. What is going on in my county is a prime example of the total lack of oversight that is common.

It is a problem for the states because they don’t do a very good job watching their own money. Hopefully they will finally start. Okaloosa County is out a few million dollars because they didn’t.