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Conservative Watchdog Group Criticizes Oklahoma’s Stimulus Transparency

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By Jennifer Loren, Oklahoma Impact Team

OKLAHOMA CITY -- When President Obama signed the stimulus bill into law, he promised transparency in spending. Oklahoma's leadership followed suit with the same promise, but a conservative watchdog group said Oklahoma leadership is breaking that promise.

In March of 2009, many state agencies learned they would receive millions of dollars in stimulus money. At that time Governor Brad Henry created a panel of state leaders to oversee how the stimulus money would be spent.

In an executive order dated March 11, Henry created the state's Coordinating Council. According to the order, one of their duties is to "ensure full, thorough and easily accessible public disclosure of all stimulus funds."

To that end, the state's stimulus tracking website was created, but it's still incomplete. When you click "more information" you end up on a federal web site.

"The very first priority needs to be transparency," said Brian Downs, Director of Oklahomans for Responsible Government.

His conservative group is calling for state leaders to follow through on their transparency promise and get the website back on track. He said right now the state is failing taxpayers.

"Well it's their hard-earned money, that's coming out of their paychecks, that's going to fund these projects," Downs said.

Scott Frisbie is an Oklahoma resident who wanted to see if his business could benefit from stimulus money.

"I've looked around. Actually I've not really found anything where you could actually find all that information, localized, in one general area," Frisbie said.

Ann Chambers, another Oklahoma resident, said she follows stimulus spending through news web sites but would like to see it all in one central location.

"Would you like it if Oklahoma had a place where you could see for yourself where they're spending the money?" asked Jennifer Loren of The Oklahoma Impact Team.

"Well it would be nice not to have to search," Chambers said.

That is the idea behind Oklahoma's Recovery and Reinvestment web site. However, according to the Director of State Finance, they scrapped the original plan for the site because the federal web site already provided better information, and he wants the state's web site to do even more.

"I didn't think our first shot out of the box was going to get us there, so we're trying to retool this and somewhat augment the federal site with more, better ways to search and better ways to download information," said Michael Clingman, Office of State Finance Director.

Plus, Clingman said, the state is in the midst of a financial crisis and that is taking priority.

"State agencies are really going to hurt this next year and we need every penny we can to help support them through a very tough year. So money we had planned to use on this we are really diverting to state agencies to stay afloat over the next 18 months with their I.T. needs," Clingman said.

Meanwhile, other states like Texas have already launched comprehensive, user-friendly stimulus sites. Their citizens can track stimulus money allocated to each state agency, all the way down to the individual project's description and the exact dollar amount spent. Downs said if Texas can do it, so can Oklahoma.

"We've been sitting on our hands, and we need to take the next step and move forward like a lot of the other states around us have done," Downs said.

Clingman said other states may have better websites than Oklahoma's, but they've likely come at a higher cost. Plus, he questioned whether they provide any more information than the federal recovery site.

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