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Accounting and Accountability: AP follows the money, finds most ‘rescue’ funds unspent

In this Friday, Oct. 1, 2021 photo, from left, Zihare Wellons, 7, Shahif Wellons, 12, and Janiyah Acie, 3 Children walk through a new Rec2Tech space at Jefferson Recreation Center in Pittsbburgh, Oct. 1, 2021. The facility will provide access to technology and innovative programming for community members including STEM, computer science and coding education, combined with the arts. Although Pittsburgh has yet to use any of its funding from the American Rescue Plan, passed by Congress last spring, the city says it plans to use some of the money to expand these programs. It also plans to buy 78 electric vehicles, build technology labs and launch a pilot project paying 100 low-income Black women $500 a month for two years to test the merits of a guaranteed income program.(AP Photo / Rebecca Droke)

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President Joe Biden signs the American Rescue Plan coronavirus relief package in the Oval Office of the White House, March 11, 2021. – AP Photo / Andrew Harnik

The pandemic relief bill signed by President Joe Biden this past spring sent $350 billion — an astounding amount — to states and local governments in what was labeled a “rescue” plan. Officials across the country had urged immediate action as Congress debated the measure.

But as AP State Government Team reporter David Lieb pored over reports recently filed with the federal government for every state and nearly 100 of the largest U.S. cities, he discovered little that met the definition of rescue from a fiscal cliff: The cities had spent just 8.5% of their federal relief and the states even less — just 2.5%.

Pittsburgh was among many cities that reported spending none of its funding yet. This despite the mayor joining a chorus of other Pennsylvania mayors last February: “Our communities cannot wait another day,” they wrote.

Further,while states and cities were given about two more years to allocate the funds,Lieb found that the state and local governments were reporting future spending plans for just 40% of the money,begging the question of how urgently it was needed.

As Lieb gathered and analyzed the reports,data journalist Camille Fassett prepared a data drop that AP customers could use to localize their own reporting. The pair’s work was the latest in an ongoing series of accountability stories being led by AP’s state government and data teams tracking the hundreds of billions of dollars the federal government has sent to states, local governments and school districts since the virus outbreak in the U.S.

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Oklahoma House members participate in a ceremonial swearing-in ceremony at the state Capitol in Oklahoma City, Nov. 11, 2020. Oklahoma is one of six Republican-led states that waited long enough to request funds this year under the American Relief Plan that they weren’t required to file reports by the Treasury Department’s Aug. 31 deadline. – AP Photo / Sue Ogrocki

Lieb’s reporting also revealed an issue of transparency: Although the U.S. Treasury Department required governments to account for the funds on a prominent,public-facing web page,some states didn’t post at all, and some cities told him he would have to file a formal records request to get the data.

The work was the latest in an ongoing series of accountability stories led by AP’s state government and data teams tracking federal pandemic-related aid.

Play for the story was outstanding. It landed on the front pages of dozens of AP’s biggest customers,online and print,and drew readership on AP News.

For distinctive accountability journalism that delivered on both the national and local level, Lieb and Fassett earn AP’s Best of Week — First Winner.

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