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The Obama administration has promoted its Web site Recovery.gov as a bold new step in government transparency and a convenient way for voters to see that the economic stimulus program is working. Some Republicans say the site is a bunch of unreliable propaganda.
Florida Republican Rep. Jeff Miller ridiculed the site in a newsletter Nov. 19, writing about how he looked on the Web site and found jobs created in Florida's 34th, 53rd, 86th, and "00th" districts.
"The problem is, these congressional districts do not exist," Miller wrote. "Florida only has TWENTY-FIVE congressional districts."
"We know that the Administration is pulling a 'jobs created or saved' number out of thin air despite the fact that the unemployment rate remains high," Miller wrote. "The people of Florida know. We know that although Democrats represent only 10 of Florida’s 25 districts, their districts received 60% of the stimulus funds. These numbers reek of partisanship and potential corruption."
Miller was right that Recovery.gov did have incorrect information on it. Officials blamed it on errors entering the data and have since replaced the erroneous districts with the notation "unassigned congressional district." ABC News broke the story on Nov. 16 and the corrections were made about two days later. The error caught our attention here at PolitiFact, and we archived the Florida page that confirms Miller's observations on bad district data. We rated Miller's statement on this Mostly True.
So Miller was correct about the errors on Recovery.gov congressional districts, though they're fixed now. But was he right that Democratic districts are receiving more money than Republican districts?
It's worth noting that Miller is criticizing the data but is still using it to make a political point. We ran the data ourselves using the Recovery.gov numbers, and found he was correct. In Florida, Democratic districts are getting 57 percent of money reported thus far, about $3.9 billion, while Republican districts are getting 43 percent, or $2.9 billion.
It's important to understand that at this point, Recovery.gov is pretty much the only game in town for quantifying the stimulus. The numbers are reported by government agencies and private businesses from around the country, and they automatically feed into Recovery.gov. The government does not independently verify the numbers, but officials have taken steps to remove numbers that seem obviously incorrect once they are pointed out.
Nevertheless, officials are aware that the data at times contain errors. The U.S. Government Accountability Office, an independent agency that does investigations for Congress, found that while agencies and employers were making good-faith efforts to report data, the reporting has been inconsistent. "Even recipients of similar types of funds appear to have interpreted the reporting guidance in somewhat different ways and took different approaches in how they developed their jobs data," the agency said in a report filed last week.
Looking at stimulus money in Florida, we noticed that the money and jobs reported for District 2 -- a seat in North Florida held by Democrat Allen Boyd -- stuck out like a sore thumb. That district reported almost 24,000 jobs saved or created and $2.2 billion in funding. The next closest is District 11, a seat in Tampa held by Democrat Kathy Castor. Her district listed 430 jobs saved or created and $428 million in funding.
We suspected that statewide funding is being applied to Boyd's district because it includes the state capital in Tallahassee. In fact, we found a project for the Florida Department of Education that listed close to 13,200 jobs saved or created and $1.5 billion in funding -- all credited to District 2. The project details said it was intended to pay for teachers, teachers' aides and other educational staff. The fund was tagged as being for the "State Fiscal Stabilization Fund," which aimed to make up statewide budget shortfalls. This suggested that much of the money credited to Boyd's Tallahassee district was actually spent statewide.
We contacted the office of Florida Gov. Charlie Crist, a Republican, and a spokesman confirmed our observation about the 13,200 jobs.
"These jobs represent statewide information and statewide jobs," said spokesman Sterling Ivey in an e-mail. "Showing them in the Tallahassee Congressional District or in Leon County does not reflect that the jobs are statewide. Our hope is that the federal reporting system will be refined to more accurately reflect the information."
We also asked him whether there was any evidence that the money was being distributed in a partisan manner.
"Most of the funds are distributed through existing federal funding formulas or through competitive processes. Don Winsted, Special Advisor to Governor Crist, has closely observed this process throughout and has seen no evidence of partisan distribution of funds.
"It is probably fair to criticize the federal reporting process (and last week’s GAO report on job reporting does exactly that), but the shortcomings are largely attributable to a first attempt to report very complex information rather than any partisan dimension," Ivey said.
Remove the Department of Education funding from the Democratic side of the ledger, and the total for Democratic districts actually drops a bit below the total for Republican districts: $2.4 billion vs. $2.9 billion.
We asked Miller's staff about this, and they sent us the following statement from the congressman: "Recovery.gov made numerous errors in reporting of jobs and Stimulus money disbursements on their website. Although some of their errors have been removed from the site, it would not surprise me if there were other errors in the assigning of disbursements to the wrong Congressional District."
Clearly, the data on Recovery.gov is subject to some amount of clerical errors and distortions. Those errors might be unintentional, but the data should still be approached with caution. And we should note this isn't the first time that we've seen problems with the Obama administration's aggressive promotion of stimulus numbers. Back in May, President Barack Obama said the economic stimulus has " saved or created nearly 150,000 jobs " in its first 100 days. That was an estimate created by White House economic advisers, and independent economists we interviewed said that it was far too early to create a definite projection with a high level of accuracy. So we rated his statement Barely True. On the other hand, our reporting has also found the stimulus is properly credited for contributing to 3.5 percent growth in the Gross Domestic Product during the third quarter. Talk show host Rush Limbaugh said all that was due to Cash for Clunkers and a homebuyers tax credit , but we found that Half True.
In the claim we're examining here, Rep. Jeff Miller said, "Although Democrats represent only 10 of Florida's 25 districts, their districts received 60 percent of the stimulus funds." Recovery.gov is the primary source for data on the stimulus, and it does show more money going to Democrats. But it didn't take us long to notice that the projects reported in at least one Democratic district are way off. Miller himself said the data was unreliable, but then uses the same data to say Democrats are getting more money. That doesn't seem to be the case. We rate his statement Barely True.
Editor's note: This statement was rated Barely True when it was published. On July 27, 2011, we changed the name for the rating to Mostly False.
ABC News, Exclusive: Jobs 'Saved or Created' in Congressional Districts That Don't Exist , Nov. 16, 2009
Recovery.gov, Florida summary , accessed Nov. 23, 2009
Jeff Miller, Miller Newsletter on Stimulus , November 19, 2009
Recovery.gov, Florida Education Department
E-mail interview with Sterling Ivey
U.S. Government Accountability Office, via the Washington Post, Recipient Reported Jobs Data Provide Some Insight into Use of Recovery Act Funding, but Data Quality and Reporting Issues Need Attention , November 2009
ProPublica, Are the Criticisms of the Gov’s Stimulus Site Legit? , Nov. 19, 2009
ProPublica, ProPublica’s Unofficial Guide to Recovery.gov , Oct. 30, 2009
Washington Post, Auditors raise doubts about stimulus numbers, but expect data will improve , Nov. 19, 2009
Recovery Accountability and Transparency Board, Recovery Board Corrects Congressional District Errors Identified by OMB , Nov. 18, 2009
The White House Web site, Reality Check: The Very Real Jobs the Recovery Act is Supporting , Nov. 19, 2009
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