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Will $3 billion federal injection cure state's ills?

Will $3 billion federal injection cure state's ills?

The American Recovery and Reinvestment Act's impact on Oklahoma's economy waits to be seen.

By RANDY KREHBIEL World Staff Writer

For most of us, $3 billion is a lot of money.

It's enough to hire 85,714 teachers, at $35,000 each, for one year.

Enough to buy 30 billion Pixie Stix, 1.5 million iPhones, or 120,000 American-built hybrid sedans.

But is $3 billion enough to put a jolt in Oklahoma's $146.5 billion economy? That's what we're about to find out.

Officially, Oklahoma has been allocated $2.6 billion of federal stimulus money under the American Recovery and Reinvestment Act, but that total does not include such things as $137.4 million being spent on state military bases — chiefly Fort Sill and Tinker Air Force Base — or $83.3 million allocated to Oklahoma Indian tribes through various federal programs.

It also doesn't include $70.8 million in Army Corps of Engineers projects in the state, $7.8 million being spent by the Department of Interior, or $3 million by the General Services Administration to replace all the windows in Tulsa's downtown Federal Building.

It also doesn't include Oklahomans' share of increased unemployment benefits — $15 million through May 31 — $288 billion in tax cuts and credits or individual participation in such things as a Small Business Administration loan program and a Defense Department program to help personnel and civilian employees sell their homes.

So, everything taken together, $3 billion seems a reasonable estimate for the recovery act's initial shot to Oklahoma's economy.

And what are we getting for $3 billion?

Hundreds of entities and perhaps more than 1,000 have been allocated stimulus money.

The list runs from $390.86 for disadvantaged students at Kildare Public Schools to $272.2 million for Medicaid.

Just about every item on it could be questioned — and justified.

There's $6 million to repair a dam at Fort Sill, $3.9 million for job-search assistance and $13,120 for the Roosevelt, Okla., Housing Authority.

The National Park Service is getting $41,000 to replace a fence at the Washita National Battlefield. Low-income Oklahoma college students will have an additional $85 million in Pell Grants available. Road projects, including those under the purview of the Corps of Engineers and Interior, total more than $550 million.

It's certain that all of this will have some economic impact, said Bob Ball, chief economist for the Tulsa Metro Chamber of Commerce. Measuring how much is something else entirely.

"There's no doubt stimulus money stimulates the economy," Ball said. "Whether, politically, people think we should be doing this is another issue."

Using the 18-month, $75 million Inner Dispersal Loop project as an example, Ball said, "The contractors hire workers, the workers buy groceries, the grocery stores hire more people. Does the effect last more than the 18 months? There is a carryover."

But, he said, it is impossible to know whether the workers would have been employed otherwise or what their earnings would have been.

Aside from concerns about the general effectiveness of the stimulus program are fears the money will not be spent as intended. Oklahoma Auditor and Inspector Steve Burrage is responsible for monitoring the $2.6 billion passing through state agencies.

"What I'm telling everyone is that they make sure they have the proper controls in place to be in compliance with federal requirements," Burrage said. "The governor had to personally certify the money would be spent properly."

Burrage said he is not as worried about outright fraud as he is having the agencies suddenly finding themselves responsible for a lot more money — and more accountability — than in the past. As a result, he has been giving presentations across the state about how to document stimulus money and how to ward off fraud and abuse.

"Without proper controls, you're inviting fraud," he said.

Under the American Recovery and Reinvestment Act, federal agencies are required to publish weekly online updates of stimulus plans and expenditures, and all states face federal audits.

"Everybody spending this money needs to understand that if it is not spent the way it is supposed to be spent, it will be pointed out," said Burrage. "There will be federal auditors coming."

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