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Correcting course in Maryland’s stimulus spending | COMMENTARY

Since early in the COVID-19 pandemic, governments at most every level have, often to their credit, recognized that the potential damage to the U.S. economy was profound. In response, officials quickly turned on the spending tap, particularly at the federal level, often leaving it to states and local government to decide how the money could be used most effectively. From the start, the danger has been that the size and speed of this economic stimulus would limit oversight, allowing aid to be used inefficiently or ineffectively and for it to chiefly end up in the pockets of what one might call the “usual suspects” — those individuals and organizations with the knowledge and resources to quickly take advantage.

Surely, to nobody’s surprise, this has happened in Maryland. In a briefing held last week by a work group examining billions of dollars in pandemic spending in the state, at least two important questions were raised. First: Has the extra money gone toward the subdivisions most in need of assistance? And secondly: Has it gone toward industries hit hardest by the pandemic? Looking at spending by two state agencies with a primary role, the departments of Commerce and Housing and Community Development that briefed the work group, the answer is: Not really.

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In Commerce spending, for example, Prince George’s County received $13.3 million, while neighboring Montgomery County received more than twice as much at $28 million. Similarly, Baltimore received $16 million, while Baltimore County’s payments totaled $24 million. While Montgomery and Baltimore counties have greater populations, they are not that much bigger. And it should be noted that both of the smaller subdivisions suffer from greater economic hardships, which would argue for more, not less, per capita spending. Meanwhile, the work group also learned that the food service industry received 17% of certain Commerce aid while representing 33% of all job losses. In contrast, the professional, scientific and technical service industries received 13% but accounted for just 3% job losses in Maryland.

Maryland Comptroller Peter Franchot, who chairs the work group, issued a statement expressing “concern” about these outcomes. That’s probably about right. It’s simply too early to pass too harsh a judgment. This has been a once-in-a-lifetime mobilization for government, and it’s reasonable for the state to have dispensed American Rescue Plan dollars, at least initially, on a first-come, first-served basis. The unavoidable reality is that it’s far easier to be first in line when you have teams of lawyers, accountants and lobbyists looking out for just these opportunities. One might also argue that speed was essential in this case when the risks of a long-lasting economic depression were so high.

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But the question we would ask is this: Is Maryland learning from this experience? This exercise in scrutiny will no doubt produce pages and pages of noteworthy critique when it’s presented as a final report to the General Assembly months from now. It might even give quite a few candidates for governor some political talking points, Mr. Franchot included. But one would hope that a mid-course correction of state policy is also possible and that agencies would be seizing opportunities to offset these earlier decisions by making sure that Marylanders who are hurting most are getting helped the most as well.

Programs aimed at assisting individuals with their rent or mortgage payments, at getting homeless people off the street and at increasing the availability of broadband internet service should, for example, favor underserved communities. Gov. Larry Hogan must surely be paying attention. Republicans have long presented themselves as the more cautious with tax dollars. This would seem a terrific opportunity to demonstrate that a governor so intent on cutting off unemployment benefits to the jobless this week would at least channel stimulus spending toward the most deserving.

The work group’s efforts in high-profile accountability are probably not winning Comptroller Franchot any brownie points with Governor Hogan. But this is one time when the comptroller’s penchant for publicity actually makes a lot of sense. As we’ve noted with recent controversies involving inspectors general in Baltimore and Baltimore County, sunlight remains a terrific disinfectant against the potential ills of government waste, fraud and abuse. So please keep those news releases coming, Mr. Franchot. These are questions that deserve to be asked and the answers examined closely for all to see.

Baltimore Sun editorial writers offer opinions and analysis on news and issues relevant to readers. They operate separately from the newsroom.

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