Thursday, July 09, 2009

Fancy Maps Show Maryland Bailout, Not Stimulus

Gov. Martin O'Malley was on Capitol Hill Wednesday bragging about how accountable and transparent was Maryland's spending of $3.9 billion in federal stimulus dollars over the next two years. But the highly sophisticated mapping tool he was touting makes clear that the money going to the state from the American Reinvestment and Recovery Act is as much a bailout for the state's fiscal hole as it is a stimulus for jobs.

"We are using our GIS mapping technology to track ARRA funds from the moment they enter the state's coffers through the time they flow through agencies and down to the local jurisdictions," O'Malley said in written testimony to the U.S. House Committee on Oversight and Government Reform. "Through our interactive website, we are giving those maps to the public, live, in real time."

The maps are an impressive feat of computer imaging developed by ERSI out of Redlands, Calif. The sophisticated computer user with a well-tuned mouse can find a lot of information about where and how the stimulus funds are being spent – including information about why. In fact, the maps have so much data and so many charts that pop up as you move the mouse across the screen that the task is a bit daunting.

ERSI and O'Malley have developed quite a partnership. The company developed the state's Greenprint map that shows the entire state and its land use, targeting state acquisition of open space. For this, O'Malley nominated the company for the Public-Private Partnership Award they got from the National Governors Association in February. On Monday, O'Malley will in turn accept ERSI's President's Award at its international Education User Conference in San Diego.

Indeed, the stimulus interactive map shows that one-mile stretch of New Hampshire Avenue near White Oak in Silver Spring that was the first-in-the-nation, shovel-ready road resurfacing project. After some degree of fiddling, I was even able to find the data box that showed the project cost $2.1 million and would generate an estimated 77 jobs. There are objections that these road resurfacing projects, which make up the bulk of the use of the highway funds, do not solve long-term transportation needs or reduce congestion. But they do put to work contractors that had faced a drastic cutback in state transportation spending.

Other categories are more troubling as "economic stimulus" goes. Only about one-sixth of the money ($610 million) is going to transportation projects. Two-thirds of Maryland's ARRA money is going to health and education, and the bulk of the $1.5 billion for health is going for expansion of Medicaid services as more of the unemployed qualify. This may be a worthy use of federal funds, but in a state coping with a shortage of primary care physicians, especially those accepting Medicaid, this is hardly economic stimulus. In fact, a GAO study released this week showed that most states are spending the bulk of their ARRA money this way.

Perhaps the most troubling of the pie charts that come and go as the mouse scans the screen is the one that shows education spending of $572 million. The largest single chunk goes not to poorer schools (23%) or to fund early childhood education for the disabled (18%) or even for technology (1%), but for "retirement equity" -- $137 million for teachers' pensions (24%). Admittedly, funding these pensions out of the state's own dollars would take away from other things, but coping with the shortfall in the state's retirement system seems hardly a stimulus for anyone but the fund managers who have underperformed.

O'Malley freely admitted to the committee that the stimulus dollars prevented "devastating cuts" in the state budget, including layoffs of 700 state employees. But the bells and whistles of the Reinvestment and Recovery mapping don't hide the fact that much of the money is not going out into the private-sector economy but to prop up state spending on things such as teachers' pensions.