Commentary

Oregon could use a new czar and beefed up oversight as federal money flows

State agencies have staggered under infusions of federal money – and the lessons need to be learned now

January 6, 2022 5:30 am
Oregon highway work

State agencies are planning for unexpectedly high fuel prices. Asphalt costs are expected to climb. (Oregon Department of Transportation)

Oregon is about to be awash in federal money, pouring in by the millions to fix roads, build internet access, purify drinking water and more.

Such sudden infusions can overwhelm common sense and accountability, as the state has experienced in recent months.

But state and local authorities could act now to guard against misuse or just plain stupid decisions.

The money flows out of the federal Infrastructure Investments and Jobs Act and will go to several state agencies. They, in turn, are expected to share a portion with cities, counties and other local governments. And to complicate matters, those local governments can also compete for yet another share of federal money by going directly to the federal government.

No matter the financial plumbing, Oregon will see more than $2 billion come in – and soon.

The opportunity for Oregon is tremendous. The money can speed up fixes that already had been planned, from bridges to bike paths. This is also a chance to move projects from the “wish list” to the “to-do list” as seems sensible.

The money has to be spent fairly rapidly, so the pace of moving projects will have to be brisk. The usual careful vetting that any public expenditure should face may be diminished, following the adage that it’s better to act now and apologize later than to not act at all.

The Oregon government machinery doesn’t always handle such surges well.

The Oregon Employment Department, for one, has been pounded for months over its stumbling effort to push out pandemic benefits. The waits for Oregonians grew intolerable. Those who needed the extra help to feed and house themselves and their families were coaxed to be patient. Patience doesn’t pay the power bill.

And the Oregon Housing and Community Services Department recently took its turn before the critics. The agency has the duty of pushing out millions to help tenants stay in their rentals and help landlords fend off mortgage foreclosures for lack of income. The agency was overwhelmed by the enormity of the task and checks were delayed and even mishandled. Calls for audits have been persistent.

What’s coming for the infrastructure dwarfs any challenge those agencies faced.

For one, a host of state agencies will have a hand in deciding projects and routing money. Competition among bureaucracies can gum up the works when speed and efficiency are expected.

Another challenge is that state agencies will be key to helping cities, counties and other local governments figure out what to do with their share of the money. That introduces a natural strain between state bosses in Salem and city managers and county administrators who will juggle local – and likely competing – demands for the cash.

Gov. Kate Brown and legislative leaders need to act quickly to head off problems that are easy to anticipate.

The state needs an infrastructure czar. This wouldn’t be a crowned authority who decides “yea” or “nay” on spending requests. Instead, a skilled executive could help ensure every dollar flowing into the state benefits Oregonians. That will take someone who sees the broad landscape, who can help link the pieces that might not seem connected. The idea would be to produce the most significant work for the money in hand, and that’s not necessarily a string of smaller projects.

That might mean dreaming a little bigger than otherwise would be possible with limited funds. And it means a chance to transform places like Coos Bay or Grants Pass or Burns. Such communities could stride farther faster to adapt to the changing economy, climate and workforce.

A partner to a czar should be something like an inspector general – right from the start. There is no sense waiting until contractors send in their final bills to determine whether the right street was torn up or the extension of a broadband line actually delivered service.

An inspector general could raise the red flag of caution before – not after – a mistake has been made or a dollar misspent. This machinery doesn’t have to be invented. The Audits Division of the Secretary of State’s Office has the experience for this task. Some of that federal money should be invested in beefing up its operation to safeguard the millions coming in, even if it’s a stand-alone unit.

An infrastructure inspector general could also help shape performance measures before projects get launched. The question would be: What value will taxpayers get from doing X?

And this independent watchdog could also keep an out eye for fairness – ensuring every sector of Oregon gets a share and that powerful forces don’t manipulate formulas and funding.

The state has some experience with such an approach. The Oregon Transportation Department in 2017 was put in charge of the big transportation package referred to as “Keep Oregon Moving,” spending about $5 billion over 10 years.

A Republican secretary of state, Dennis Richardson, audited that effort just a year into the launch. The audit found the Transportation Department had been smart about standing up the teams and systems to move the money. The audit also suggested improvements, especially around transparency and assuring local spending was justified.

State leaders from the governor and the Democratic and Republican leaders in the Legislature should be asking the Transportation Department two questions. One: What did you learn from “Keep Oregon Moving”? And two: What advice do you have to build a similar system to manage projects, this time across all state government?

No one should underestimate the power of that federal money. Oregon can leap years ahead in improving life, transportation, the economy and the climate.

Doing so will require every reasonable step to guard against politicization and waste with what is not free money but taxpayer money.

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Les Zaitz
Les Zaitz

Les Zaitz is a veteran editor and investigative reporter, serving Oregon for more than 45 years. He reported for The Oregonian for 25 years and owns community newspapers and a digital news service. He is a national SPJ fellow, two-time Pulitzer finalist, including for a lengthy investigation of Mexican drug cartels in Oregon and five-time winner of Oregon’s top investigative reporting award. He has investigated corrupt state legislators, phony charities, and an international cult that moved to Oregon, and the biggest bank failure in Oregon history. He also has been active in reforming the state’s public records law and was appointed by the governor to the Oregon Public Records Advisory Council. In his spare time, he operates a ranch nestled in a national forest, feeding horses and assorted animals.

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