Kudos to the Milwaukee Journal-Sentinel for setting an example of how newspapers can and should cover the progress of the federal stimulus dollars as they trickle into the states. In March, the Journal-Sentinel launched an effort to keep track of the $9.2 billion that Wisconsin will receive.

They’ll also investigate

*Disparities in funding. Are certain areas of the state getting disproportionately more money than others? And how does Wisconsin stand compared with the rest of the country?

* Formula-based spending. Billions of dollars are being doled out according to formulas the federal government has been using for years. But are these formulas still relevant in 2009?

* Political meddling. Are powerful political interests steering contracts to friends and campaign backers?

* Agency turf battles. Can local agencies cooperate on regional initiatives? Or will we see more fights like the one going on now between City of Milwaukee and county officials over how to divvy up law-enforcement stimulus funds?

Already, the stories have exposed some shortcomings in the way the funds were allocated. For example, a piece in late March revealed that rural bridges that accommodate low traffic flow will receive stimulus dollars because they meet the shovel-ready criteria, and that’s a problem:

To be eligible for that first allocation, projects needed to have environmental assessments and Army Corps of Engineer permits. Engineering and design plans had to be in place, and the contracts for the work needed to be ready to go by March 2010.

Given the tight deadlines, infrastructure projects with the greatest public safety needs aren’t necessarily the ones that received funding.

And, another piece explains that the funds will help to extend broadband Internet service to rural areas.

Given that the stimulus bill was the subject of heated rhetoric that valued politics above policy, it’s refreshing to see the Journal-Sentinel focus on the nitty-gritty details of how this bill may or may not benefit their readers. It’s too early to tell how effective the projects will be, but the people of Wisconsin are lucky to have a watchdog on their side.

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Katia Bachko is on staff at The New Yorker.