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GAO Tries Accounting for Stimulus—but It Isn't Easy

So, you want to know where all that stimulus money is going? Good luck.

Stimulus Package
Stimulus Package

With $787 billion in total, it’s virtually impossible to account for all of it. But that isn’t stopping the effort, and today, the Government Accountability Office, better known as GAO, released its third report on the money that has gone out the proverbial government door.

Overall, $48 billion of the $49 billion slated for states and localities this year is "spent". Putting aside the tax cuts, Medicaid and student loans, nearly $11 billion has been obligated to about 3,800 highway-type projects all over the country.

If you think those are large numbers, keep in mind that starting in the next fiscal year (Oct. 1), it will more than double to $107 billion.

(See the interview with the GAO's Chris Mihm.)

GAO Managing Director Chris Mihm supervised the production of the report and says that despite the nascent recovery, the money is still needed.

“The budget situations in the states continue to deteriorate,” he said. “And in the absence of recovery funding, we are finding that pretty much across the board they would have to take even more significant cuts or had to consider tax increases.”

This is where the debate is heating up. With Federal Reserve Chairman Ben Bernanke saying that the recession was "most likely" over, there’s growing clamor to pull back the stimulus.

"If you remember at the time (when the Recovery Act was passed), there was such desperation that it was perceived to be necessary to step forward and not half-way," said Richard Dekaser, President of Woodley Park Research. "So, a lot of this was addressing the psychological conditions that persisted back earlier this year and those are no longer in place."

Even with the rising tide of pushback against the Recovery Act, once October 1 rolls around – and it’s too close on the calendar to stop -- we will enter the biggest, most important and most influential year of the package.

That brings us to, perhaps, the biggest challenge moving forward: tracking the money and assessing its actual impact on the economy. Even the GAO’s Mihm admits it is a problematic proposition.

“It’s not being unfair to say that we know the data will be imperfect,” said Mihm, who added that recipients of the government money have to report on it, starting October 1. “When recipients of the dollars have to report how they’re using the money, what sort of jobs have been created, we have to have assurances that the data coming in are accurate and usable for decision-making.”

Starting in October, recipients of the stimulus must begin reporting results to the Recovery Accountability and Transparency Board, or what everyone else calls "The Recovery Board". You will be able to monitor the results on recovery.gov.

Despite all the effort at transparency, the bottom line is that the sheer scope of this program means there will be inefficiencies, and that may well translate into hundreds of millions of wasted money -- and that does not even include possible fraud.

However, that is not an indictment of the GAO. Having a 25-million dollar budget to cover the 787-billion dollar program is like you and your neighbors playing the New York Yankees. A tough one to win.

Reach Brian and the Stimulus-Tracking team at stimulus@cnbc.com

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