New Year’s Resolutions: Our Five Wishes for States’ ARPA Transparency

December 23, 2021

We can make New Year’s Resolutions for other people, right? Because I’m about to make some for the good people across the country who will continue spending about $500 billion in CARES Act and American Rescue Plan Act (ARPA) money, well into 2022.

Katie Furtado here. I’m a research analyst for Good Jobs First, and I spend a lot of time digging into how states are spending COVID relief money. And I have ideas – let’s call them resolutions – for how they should do it better.

First, some background: States, territories, metropolitan cities, and counties with a population of 250,000 or more got $350 billion as part of ARPA’s Coronavirus State and Local Fiscal Recovery Fund (SLFRF, or “Recovery Fund”) to help cover COVID-related costs. Through a program in the 2020 CARES Act called the Coronavirus Relief Fund (or “Relief Fund”), they got $150 billion.

Some governments are doing a good job disclosing how they’re spending these funds, but others, not so much. My hope is that the officials representing all of us step up their transparency game. Here are my wishes for states’ COVID spending disclosure practices in 2022:  

Every state has its own COVID spending website– In our recent paper, “Federal Dollars, States’ Recoveries: How Poorly Most States are Disclosing CARES Act Spending,” we evaluated the accessibility and content of each state’s Relief Fund website. We discovered there are some states without websites or landing pages to track that spending. That should change. Residents should be able to easily see where and how their tax dollars are being spent.

States disclose more spending details on their COVID spending sites– Even though most states have a COVID spending site or landing page, some are more detailed than others. The state pages we call exemplary have the most detailed spending descriptions (some list personal protective equipment purchases of a few hundred dollars, for example). This practice allows residents to examine state spending line by line. Since some states do this, all the other states can follow suit in the new year.  

All ARPA recovery plans are easily accessible to the public– As part of ARPA, the U.S. Treasury requires all governments getting Relief Fund money to submit recovery plan reports with information on future expenditures and how those plans will yield equitable outcomes. States are required to make these report available to the public, yet they can be really hard to find. Government websites should prominently feature recovery plan reports.

All states follow the recovery plan template provided by the U.S. Treasury– When the Treasury Department distributed SLFRF funds, it provided an optional template to governments that included best practices on how and what information should be disclosed in their reports. Those states that chose not to use it are giving very little information on how they plan to spend the money. In 2022, governments getting SLFRF money would ideally be required to use the recovery plan report template.      

All recovery plan reports are in a searchable format– Recovery plans are currently published as PDF documents, and some are not searchable, so you have to manually scroll through the entire document. It’s a waste of time for researchers, academics, and nonprofit employees as they look for specific information as they provide technical assistance to residents and other organizations.

The American Rescue Plan Act gives states a second chance to improve transparency and be more accountable for their spending decisions. This is a historic opportunity to make critical investments for families, neighborhoods, and small businesses to help build a brighter 2022.