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OPINION

State should apply programs from Great Recession to the coronavirus economy

The Government Accountability Office reviewed the effectiveness of states’ oversight of federal aid — Massachusetts proved itself to be a national leader.

Governor Charlie Baker gives a coronavirus update.
Governor Charlie Baker gives a coronavirus update.Matt Stone/BH

The scope of the impact of the coronavirus pandemic is unparalleled. By now, we all know people who have lost a life, have been infected, and/or are experiencing economic hardship.

The suffering has been worsened by the failure of the White House to help steer us through the crisis, leaving our nation’s governors to find their own supplies, seek their own guidance, and otherwise chart their own courses for their citizens and businesses. Fortunately, many state leaders, including Massachusetts’, are effectively filling this void.

Governor Charlie Baker and his team deserve praise and credit for navigating the state through the public health response to the pandemic with clarity and effective administration. While COVID-19 has been indefatigable, the administration’s data-driven clarity, candor and commitment to social distancing have helped to maintain the public’s trust in government.

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Of course, the coronavirus has threatened not just public health, but also the state’s economy. Federal assistance already has targeted resources to individuals and businesses, hospitals and labs, public safety and higher education. The federal government, however, has yet to act on a comprehensive state and local government relief package that will prove crucial to the continuation of the wide range of vital services these entities provide. Nor has it fashioned a job creation and economic stimulus plan, like the American Reinvestment and Recovery Act passed in response to the Great Recession a decade ago. ARRA was nearly universally recognized for its success in preserving jobs in both the public and private sectors, facilitating a broad range of infrastructure improvements, supporting public education and health care, and solidifying public confidence in government.

While the state waits for the federal government to develop a similar comprehensive aid package, it should take steps now to ensure the most productive use of federal dollars and to safeguard efforts against waste, fraud, and abuse. To find a model for accomplishing this urgent task, we should look to the one created by the Commonwealth to account for spending and results under the ARRA stimulus plan.

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At the completion of the three-year stimulus spending, the non-partisan federal Government Accountability Office reviewed the effectiveness of states’ oversight of ARRA dollars, looking for best practices for timeliness, effectiveness, accountability, and transparency in their spending and to prepare all levels of government for future economically catastrophic events. In the estimation of the GAO, Massachusetts proved itself to be a national leader, citing three factors that set the state apart: the creation of the Massachusetts Recovery and Reinvestment Office, rigorous and independent oversight, and robust public transparency as to how money was spent.

The temporary Massachusetts Recovery and Reinvestment Office, the director of which had senior officer level status and authority, like a cabinet secretary, was the final word on where and how money from the 2008 recovery act could be spent and dictated its reporting and monitoring requirements. All secretariats spending ARRA funds reported on those activities to the MRRO director. This approach helped break down interagency silos and ensured inaction or misdirection were not options. Results mattered. To navigate our new economic and fiscal crisis, this office should be re-established and given similar prominence and authority.

The GAO also pointed to the Stimulus Oversight and Prevention Fraud Task Force that was formed to combat waste, fraud, and abuse in spending. It included the Massachusetts attorney general, state auditor, and inspector general, who collaborated with the state comptroller and with federal agencies and their respective inspectors general. The Task Force worked both prospectively with the MRRO to set up prevention systems and in an on-going monitoring capacity. Recognizing that in times of fiscal crisis, funding for governmental accountability activities is typically among the first items on the chopping block, members of the Task Force had a consistent allocation of resources from the MRRO necessary to ensure that oversight would occur, even in the face of declining state revenues and resultant budget cuts. This task force should also be reactivated.

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Finally, in responding to the Great Recession, the state established a transparency website that the GAO determined was among the 10 best in the country. It provided weekly citizen updates and an ability to track all stimulus spending by amount, entity, and purpose. The new site should provide robust analysis, real-time reporting, and tools to allow the public to dive deep into what impacts spending is having in their communities.

This crisis is only beginning. In the months ahead, the resilience of Bay Staters will be tested as we refashion our lives to altered public health, economic, and governmental operations realities. We do not know what the future holds, but we know there are steps we as state leaders can take today to ensure we are prepared to provide economic relief quickly, while building public trust in state government’s ability to respond to crises.

Suzanne M. Bump is the State Auditor of Massachusetts, and served as the secretary of Labor and Workforce Development under Governor Deval Patrick. Jeffrey Simon was the director of the Massachusetts Recovery and Reinvestment Office, and is currently the president of Simon Properties.

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