If the American Recovery and Reinvestment Act (otherwise known as the stimulus bill) is passed more or less as is, it will cost American taxpayers nearly $1 trillion. Many of the projects in the bill — like the $200 million Democrats want to spend on contraceptives — have garnered national attention. But what about the other $999,800,000,000 billion? Does anyone know which projects will that money fund?
How about $500,000 for the construction of a dog park in Chula Vista, California, for starters; or, $500 million for “solar water heaters” for rural area families in Cidra, Puerto Rico? According to a new website, StimulusWatch.org — launched this last Monday — those projects could be a few of the thousands that receive funding from economic stimulus bill.
In November, the U.S. Conference of Mayors released a report, available online, that detailed a wish list of “shovel-ready” projects they would like to see funded within the stimulus package. Eileen Norcross, a research fellow at Mercatus Center at George Mason University, mentioned the list to senior research fellow Jerry Brito and suggested he use it for research.
Brito, along with the help of two gentlemen who volunteered their skills in computer programming for the site, compiled the list into an accessible, wikipedia-like format. Citizens are encouraged to post about projects on the list, preferably ones in their community about which they have specific knowledge or an opinion. The projects can be viewed by several different rankings: most expensive, most critical, most discussed etc. Because of the sheer amount of projects, Brito cannot monitor every “wiki fact” inserted on every project, but he does hope, like Wikipedia, if a fact is wrong, citizens will jump in and keep posts about projects accurate.
For example, I live in Northern Virginia. If I search by locality, I can see there are about 50 projects for the city of Alexandria that were included in the mayors’ report. There is a brief description of each project, how many jobs the project would provide, the cost, the type and the “vote ratio” — how many people voted for or against that particular project. This goes on for multiple cities, states and territories.
What does this have to do with the stimulus bill? Everything. Since there won’t be line items for every bridge, school and dog park in the bill, Brito explained the bill will fund existing federal grant programs. Mayors from different cities will submit grant proposals to organizations — like the Community Development Block Grant — that received grants and then they will make decisions on which projects to fund with that money. One of the goals of stimulus watch, Brito says is simply to show: “This is what your local government is doing.”
Though Brito is a scholar at the libertarian-minded Mercatus Center, the website not associated with the organization. However, Brito’s research — and this site — does focus on “government transparency and accountability and how the Internet can be used to internet can be leveraged to ‘crowdsource’ accountability.” In other words, the site puts into “practice the theory that if government puts information out there online in useable format that third parties can take it and do interesting things with it.”
Brito explains crowdsourcing this way: “In this case there are 10,000 plus projects in this Mayors’ report. One person couldn’t go through all those, but if you put them out there for thousands to look at, it’s going to be real easy for people to go through them.” By way of example, Brito cited the project that, as of Thursday, is ranked as the “All Time Most Active”– almost $100,000 for Doorbells for Laurel, MS. “We soft-launched the site on Friday. We told a few people about it. Within an hour, ‘Doorbells’ was the top. I had no idea. There are 10,000 projects in this database, I had not seen ‘Doorbells.’ Within an hour doorbells was on the top. The crowd had found it and put it up there.”
Beyond that, Brito hopes the site will accomplish an even bigger goal. Since the Obama administration has pledged to make sure stimulus money is spent only on crucial projects, Brito believes his site is the perfect place to provide accountability in that area. By putting projects that could potentially receive funding from the stimulus bill online for every American taxpayer to see and comment on, Brito’s taken the bill to the modern-day equivalent of door-knocking, the Internet.
Once the bill passes, Brito would like to see StimulusWatch.org keep track of which projects actually received funding through the stimulus bill, how crucial that project was to citizens on the site, and if the project was completed to the specs in the mayors’ report. Thus, accountability comes full circle.
While conservatives and libertarians may latch on to the site as a helping hand in tearing down the Obama administration, Brito believes “this site is as much about finding pork as it is about finding projects that are really worthy investments.” He wants everyone, regardless of political persuasion, to take a look and see where and how taxpayer dollars may be spent in their town — stimulating awareness.