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November 22, 2017

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Daily Memo: Stimulus:

Nevada jeered, American Samoa cheered for stimulus Web sites

Nevada and American Samoa both launched Web sites in the same week of early March to keep track of the massive amounts of money that Congress had just approved under the so-called stimulus act.

Unfortunately for the Silver State, a watchdog group compared the two. Speaking of American Samoa, an investigative journalist at ProPublica, a Washington, D.C., group, concluded, the “tiny U.S. island territory that’s home to about 65,000 people appears well-poised to bare its projects to public scrutiny” — “(in) contrast” to Nevada.

Last week another group pointed out that Nevada’s site was peppered with “Coming soon!” links and hadn’t issued a news release since March 25.

The bill authorized $1.45 billion for Nevada, so there certainly has been something to track.

The Nevada site, however, is “less-developed than other states’, with less of an effort to present information in a compelling, usable way,” said Phil Mattera, who works with States for a Transparent and Accountable Recovery.

The nonprofit organization reviews each state’s stimulus Web site as part of its effort “to ensure that the implementation of the (stimulus act) is transparent, accountable, fair and effective.” The Obama administration urged states to develop sites for the same reason.

Asked about the critiques, Mendy Elliott, Gov. Gibbons’ deputy chief of staff and overseer of all things stimulus in Nevada, said, “I can’t disagree ... that our Web site is deficient.”

In an initial conversation, Elliott blamed the state of the state’s site on a lack of time, as officials had been so busy with the Legislature. The four-month session ended June 1. But Mattera said other states have held legislative sessions in recent months and still developed more comprehensive, user-friendly sites.

“I don’t think we’ve heard this excuse before,” he said.

In a second conversation, Elliott pointed to the lack of money. “The state has finite resources,” she said. How much would it cost to hire a consultant to build a better Web site? “About $35,000.”

“We don’t have an extra dime,” she said.

When it was noted that other states have also tightened budgets this year but found resources for keeping track of stimulus money online, she said, “I think it’s great that other states have had this luxury.”

This month state Budget Director Andrew Clinger told Elliott there might be money available from the original federal appropriation, but she still doesn’t have a timeline.

Mattera and colleague Leigh McIlvaine laid out a short list of features to look for in a good site:

• Information on contracts: who is getting the money and for what.

• “Some kind of mapping.” Mattera said. “This is important so people in different parts of the state can see if they’re getting their share.”

• Information about money available to nonprofit organizations and people who may be interested in applying.

• Interactive, easy-to-find and easy-to-search formatting, rather than, say, links to large PDF files, such as the 60-page guide to the stimulus prepared by Sen. Harry Reid’s office on Nevada’s site.

Data on needs, particularly in social services, would also be useful, and so would data on funding at the city or county level.

Elliott said she wants to get information out to the public, and soon. “I’m used to seeing things working. I come from the private sector,” she noted. The state’s stimulus czarina came out of the banking sector to join Gov. Gibbons’ staff.

Still, until the public can easily follow the money online, Mattera said, nagging questions will hang in the air. “Is the Web site behind others because the (appropriation) procedures are behind? Or is the state dragging its feet on disclosure because it doesn’t want to?”

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