As Maryland’s fiscal watchdog, it’s my duty to guard the money that flows into our state coffers, to ensure taxpayer dollars are spent wisely and to hold government agencies accountable for properly managing those funds.
So when the General Assembly tasked me with submitting quarterly reports on the distribution and expenditure of federal and state stimulus funds, I fully embraced the opportunity, creating the Comptroller’s Workgroup on Pandemic Spending, an agency-led panel that will conduct a comprehensive review of COVID-related spending.
The workgroup, which conducted our first meeting in late May, will also look at whether pandemic funds went to intended recipients and populations most in need; examine disparities in distribution; and identify possible cases of predatory fraud and what I’ve dubbed “pandemic profiteering.”
In that first meeting, we learned pandemic spending in Maryland exceeds $62 billion, which includes direct stimulus payments, unemployment benefits and small business loans designed to keep paying workers.
We also heard that the state’s economy, initially predicted to get battered by the economic shutdown, massive unemployment and changes in consumer spending, has not only weathered the storm but is poised for a surplus.
This confirms that the unprecedented infusion of federal aid worked as intended, staving off an economic calamity and providing a lifeline to millions of Marylanders who lost their jobs and were struggling to pay for food, rent and mortgage payments, and other expenses.
My only objection was these dramatic measures were actually too small to address the true need faced by struggling Americans.
Still, quality trumps quantity, which is why we must make sure these dollars are being properly spent and bringing the greatest benefit to as many Marylanders as possible. We want to better understand how relief funds were divvied up and what impact they have had on existing programs and the dozens of new initiatives, grants and loans that were established.
And we need to determine if theft of taxpayer dollars has occurred through fraud and ensure that companies did not unjustly profit from pandemic aid. As stewards of the taxpayers’ hard-earned money, it is our responsibility to determine if the aid has reached those who are most in need, not big corporations seeking an unwarranted handout.
Future workgroup meetings will focus on unemployment insurance fraud, emergency procurement practices and access to relief funds by small businesses and low-wage earners, among other topics.
All meetings will be livestreamed and archived so that Marylanders can see firsthand how their money has been spent.
Beyond the immediate duties set forth by the General Assembly, this work also has long-term value.
Government leaders were caught off guard by the speed and breadth of the pandemic that shut down our economy. The state’s labor department was unprepared for the sudden influx of unemployment claims and state and federal governments were clearly not operating from the same playbook in the early months.
We must develop a detailed response plan for Maryland’s next extraordinary financial situation. To do that, we have to learn from our mistakes and pinpoint necessary improvements now – not wait until we’re facing disaster.
Marylanders depend on us in extraordinary times. We must not let them down.
Peter Franchot is the 33rd comptroller of Maryland. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.
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