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Where's A Good Earmark When You Need It?

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Will we miss earmarks? The much-maligned political tags on federal spending have been denigrated in every media outlet in America in recent years. But if the drafts of the stimulus bill are any indication, a world without earmarks also may be a world without accountability and transparency.

Rather than politicians directing money to favored projects in their districts (aka "earmarking"), much of the stimulus bill will funnel hundreds of billions of dollars directly to state-level agencies: departments of transportation, education, etc. The money will be disbursed to these agencies in massive, flexible chunks, allowing states to decide for themselves where and how to spend. Under an earmarks regime, by contrast, we knew what we were getting.

In theory, sending flexible funds to states and cities is a great idea. States, counties and cities know best what their residents need and what projects could provide both a short-term economic jolt and a long-term community investment.

But the reality may prove more vexing for those concerned about fairness, equity, and inclusion. States are not providing legislators and taxpayers with even a broad understanding of where this money may go once it gets disbursed.

As we are witnessing in the ongoing $750 billion TARP debacle, massive, no-strings-attached government expenditures have a way of getting "lost" on their way to their expected destination. Without clear directives on how the money should be spent or concrete expected results -- and no mechanism for ongoing transparency or accountability from banks, regulators or legislators -- the TARP dollars have basically disappeared from public scrutiny. It could be years before we know exactly what happened to all that money and we may never know what opportunities were wasted as the money languished out of view.

We cannot allow the same fate to befall the stimulus package. This is one of the largest spending packages in American history. A package this large is the only way out of this economic mess. But we don't want to just recover to the disparities and environmental degradations of the past; this stimulus should offer an opportunity to transform our economic system to one that is green and equitable. Will this happen without guidelines and directives?

We must remember that this mess was caused in large part by opaque, unaccountable regulators and financial sector leaders. Decision-making processes hidden from public view are almost by definition more prone to waste and are far less likely to actually serve the interests of the taxpayers footing the bill.

There is some reason for optimism about the ultimate transparency of the bill. It does call for a seven-person "Accountability and Oversight Board" that will ostensibly "prevent waste, fraud and abuse," according to language in the bill. In addition, the web site Recovery.gov will feature a searchable list of most spending projects. Neither of these measures, however, goes far enough to ensure that low-income Americans are heard and engaged in the stimulus.

More distressing, though, is that even if we can succeed in opening up all this spending to public scrutiny, there is no guarantee that folks who are hit hardest by the downturn will benefit from the jobs and community investments that spring from the stimulus.

That is why it is vital that we not only allow working families to view the spending process, but also to actually participate and benefit from it. We can truly build up our communities by ensuring jobs go first to distressed communities; job training programs reach out to ex-offenders and youth; public transit connects isolated communities to economic opportunity; green retrofitting focuses on homes and schools in poor neighborhoods; and every dollar spent leverages help for those who most need it.

The American economy and the American people desperately need the stimulus package to pass. But unless there are clear measures that ensure we can track the spending, hold politicians accountable for any waste, and direct funds to those that need them most, we run the risk of simply creating TARP 2.0.