The Reflecting Pool: May 15, 2009

Recovery Work Far From Over

By Carl Tubbesing

For several weeks around the time the American Recovery and Reinvestment Act passed Congress, NCSL’s economic recovery web page, which was—and still is—crammed with information about the law, received more than 3,000 hits a day. Our regular Thursday conference calls drew 300-400 to their phones. There were days when one of our staff would be away in a state capital providing testimony and the rest of us would be doing the same by video or audio conferences. At last count, we had conducted 26 of these formal technical assistance programs for 19 legislatures in a 2½-month period.

Nowadays, visits to the web page are down to 400-500 a day. We've replaced the weekly call-ins with occasional calls when there’s something new to report. And, requests for technical assistance have finally abated. Could it be that there’s time now to add a few friends to our dormant Facebook pages or to re-assemble The Tenth Amendments, the Washington office softball team?

Not really. The recovery act still is demanding a lot of attention. Besides, we’ve been able to turn to many of our other state-federal priorities for the year. Here's a recap of some of NCSL’s recent activities in our nation's capital.

Transparency and Accountability in the Recovery Act

Title XV of the recovery act lays out a series of requirements intended to make implementation of the law transparent and accountable. The Obama administration clearly takes this title seriously. The Office of Management and Budget is devoting hours and hours to fleshing out the reporting and transparency requirements. The Government Accountability Office has already issued its first audit of the 16 states and the District of Columbia that it will track over the next two years. Vice President Joe Biden misses no opportunity to remind state and local officials that they better not screw this up. You just know the press can’t wait to run the first story about an infrastructure project gone awry or a state agency missing a reporting deadline or a legislature supplanting when it wasn’t supposed to.

That’s why state and local officials are really, really nervous. They are nervous not because they want to flaunt the law, file the wrong form or miss a deadline. They are nervous because they have lots of questions about what they need to do to be accountable and transparent. Title XV sets up federal accountability boards and lays out the basics of the reporting requirements, but it doesn’t say what a reporting form will look like or whether there will be one template for all agencies to use. It lets OMB to decide whether to create a master list of all the deadlines state and local governments need to meet. It doesn’t specify whether a state or a local government is responsible for reporting on money that the state just passes through to the local agency.

OMB and other administration officials have been open and responsive to state and local officials as they formulate the guidelines the state and local governments need. In March, state legislative leaders came to Washington for NCSL’s annual spring leadership meeting. They raised their economic recovery questions in two separate meetings with three high-level OMB officials. OMB and other federal agency officials have met twice with state economic recovery tsars. NCSL staff, and the staff of the other state and local organizations, met with OMB staff every week to really get into the details of these questions. Yesterday, senior staff of the seven state and local organizations, including NCSL, met with Ed DeSeve, a special advisor to the president and vice president who is coordinating the efforts of all the federal agencies with recovery act responsibilities. We found DeSeve, a former state and local official, to be understanding and reassuring on several of the points we raised during the hour-long meeting.

As usual, the best way to track these transparency and accountability activities is to check out the NCSL web page on a regular basis. Just in case you haven't already bookmarked it, go here.

Progress on the Main Street Fairness Act

Twelve state legislators were in our nation’s capital this week to attend a meeting of the streamlined sales tax project. Their states are participants in the 23-state streamlined sales tax agreement. From the time this groundbreaking project began 10 years ago, the first goal was to bring legislators, governors and tax administrators together to simplify state sales taxes. The second was to persuade Congress to pass legislation that would convert the system from a voluntary one to a system that would require out-of-state retailers to collect sales taxes for states whose tax systems comply with the agreement.

NCSL senior staff member Neal Osten has been one of two co-leaders of a public and private sector coalition that has worked for years to figure out exactly what that federal authorizing legislation would look like. Two weeks ago, the coalition finally thrashed out the remaining details and presented the bill to the two lead sponsors, Wyoming Senator Mike Enzi and Massachusetts Representative William Delahunt. They now need to agree on a propitious time—sooner rather than later, we hope—to introduce the bill. Once it’s introduced, the coalition can begin the work of finding co-sponsors and building understanding of the legislation through the media.

Medicaid Regulations Withdrawn

During the last year of President George W. Bush's term, the Department of Health and Human Services formulated seven regulations regarding Medicaid. The Congressional Budget Office estimated that the regulations would cost states $41 billion over five years. With New Jersey Assemblyman Herb Conaway in the lead, NCSL fought the regulations. We were pleased last summer when Congress included a year’s moratorium on six of the regulations in a supplemental appropriations bill. We are even more pleased that the department has announced it is rescinding two of the six. A third one—on intergovernmental transfers—will become final in July unless the department also rescinds it. The other three were only in the proposed stage when the moratoria passed, so they will not go into effect right away, even if HHS does not act by July 1.

Administration Releases Budget Details

Last week, President Obama released the details of his FY 2010 budget proposal. The proposal is largely good news for state budgets. Some of the highlights include increased funding for several education programs; environmental infrastructure, including the Clean Water and Safe Drinking Water revolving loan funds; low income home energy assistance; and unemployment programs. Of concern are reductions in Byrne Justice Assistance grants and Real ID funding. For more information go here.