Podcast Roundup – Podcasts You May Have Missed

Watchdog ReportWe’ve been busy podcasting! If you’re not subscribed on iTunes or our RSS feed, you may be missing out. Today’s WatchBlog catches you up on some of our recent podcasts.

F-35 Joint Strike Fighter: The Department of Defense could ultimately end up spending more than $1 trillion to purchase, operate, and support its F-35 Joint Strike Fighters over their lifetimes. Although DOD wants to continue investing to develop new F-35 capabilities—such as advanced software upgrades—it hasn’t yet completed development of the baseline aircraft. Listen to Mike Sullivan, a director in our Acquisition and Sourcing Management team, discuss his team’s latest annual review of the F-35 program:

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Comprehensive Reform of Flood Insurance: The National Flood Insurance Program was intended to reduce the rising costs of federal disaster assistance for flood damage, and keep insurance affordable for property owners. Given that the program was $24.6 billion in debt as of March 2017, comprehensive reform is needed. A team led by Alicia Puente Cackley, a director in our Financial Markets and Community Investment team, recently discussed her team’s latest report on flood insurance:

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Alicia Puente Cackley

Subterranean, Aerial, and Maritime Border Smuggling: Criminal organizations may smuggle drugs or people into the U.S. via tunnels, aircraft, or boats. Between 2011 and 2016, the Department of Homeland Security identified 309 smuggling incident by boat, over 500 by plane, and discovered 67 cross-border tunnels. Listen to Rebecca Gambler, a director in our Homeland Security and Justice team, talk about her team’s report on what DHS is doing to combat such smuggling:

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Examples of a Cross-Border Tunnel, Ultralight Aircraft, and Panga Boat(Excerpted from GAO-17-474)


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Shedding Light on Tennessee Valley Authority Debt

energyOn this date in 1933, President Franklin D. Roosevelt signed the law that brought the Tennessee Valley Authority into existence. It is now the country’s largest public power provider, delivering electricity to more than 9 million people.

The electric utility industry requires huge upfront investments to ensure that utilities can meet future energy needs. The 84-year-old TVA, however, is already billions of dollars in debt—and needs to fund its pensions on top of that. Today’s WatchBlog explores TVA’s debts and what it needs to do to prepare for the energy demands of the future.

Getting squeezed

When TVA’s customers pay their bills, the money goes toward running, administering, and maintaining TVA’s current operations. In contrast, TVA primarily finances large capital investments (such as constructing new power plants) by issuing bonds. By law, TVA has a $30-billion limit on bonds and other types of debt. As of September 2016, TVA’s debt totaled about $26 billion—about $24 billion of which TVA counts toward the limit.

These debts, coupled with the requirement to keep rates as low as feasible, makes large capital investments challenging. To ensure that it can make future investments, TVA plans to reduce its debt by $4 billion (by fiscal year 2023) by:

  • increasing rates
  • limiting the growth of operating expenses
  • reducing capital expenditures

A growing concern

As we’ve reported, TVA has a long history of debt. For example, in the late 1960s and 1970s, TVA started construction on 17 nuclear units but completed only 7 because of lower-than-anticipated demand for electricity. This resulted in billions of dollars of debt that put future plans in jeopardy. Since the late 1970s, TVA’s financial condition has only worsened due to delays, cost overruns, and operational shutdowns in its nuclear program.

TVA’s pension liabilities add to these financial woes. Its pension plan was only about 54 percent funded as of September 30, 2016. Although TVA hasn’t increased its debt much over the past decade, the plan’s unfunded pension liabilities have steadily increased. Moreover, the agency continues to invest in nuclear projects while deferring full recognition and funding of pension liabilities, which means TVA may need to raise rates in the future to fund those liabilities.

Tennessee Valley Authority's Debt and Unfunded Pension Liabilities, Fiscal Years 2006-2016(Excerpted from GAO-17-343)

TVA’s debt reduction plans can also be derailed by other unforeseeable events, such as regulatory pressures, future changes in demand for electricity, and technological innovations.

Illuminating information

According to TVA, managing its debt and unfunded pension liabilities are major management challenges. TVA is required to report performance information on those challenges, but hasn’t done so—which reduces transparency and raises questions about how it will meet its goals.

While TVA also aims to eliminate $6 billion in unfunded pension liabilities within 20 years, market conditions and other factors could affect progress toward this goal. No mechanism is in place to ensure the pension plan is fully funded.

We recommended that the TVA Board of Directors better document and communicate TVA’s goals in its performance plans and reports, as well as work toward rules that can ensure its pensions are fully funded.

To find out more about our recommendations, check out our full report.


  • Questions on the content of this post? Contact Frank Rusco at ruscof@gao.gov.
  • Comments on GAO’s WatchBlog? Contact blog@gao.gov.
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Separate and Unequal?

Today, the nation marks the 63rd anniversary of Brown v. Board of Education, the landmark Supreme Court case declaring that racially segregated schools are unconstitutional. On last year’s anniversary, we released a report examining race and poverty in schools. We found that some K-12 public schools appeared to still be segregated by race, and also by class. We looked at how these schools measured up to others, and found some disparities.

In this WatchBlog post, we’ll share some of those findings.

Race, poverty and education

To try to understand what was happening, we looked at schools where 75 to100 percent of the students were eligible for free or reduced-price lunch—a common indicator of poverty. Research shows that lower levels of income are generally associated with worse student educational outcomes. We also looked at schools where 75 to 100 percent of the students were Black or Hispanic—a measure of a highly racially isolated school.

In the 2000-01 school year, 9 percent of K-12 public schools had high proportions of poor and Black or Hispanic students. By school year 2013-14, that number was up to 16 percent.

We found that the 8.4 million largely poor, Black or Hispanic students attending these schools in school year 2011-12 had disproportionately less access to certain types of courses.

Take a look at our bar charts to see the disparities:

Math: We looked at how many schools offered four math classes—Algebra I, Algebra II, Geometry, and Calculus. In the chart on the left, the schools with high poverty and the most Black or Hispanic students are shown in blue. In the chart on the right, we broke that down further to see the differences among traditional neighborhood schools, charter schools, and magnet schools.

As you can see, schools with high poverty and the most Black or Hispanic students offered fewer math classes than others. Among just the schools with high poverty and the most Black or Hispanic students, proportionally more magnet schools offered all four math courses.

Figure 5: Percentage of Middle and High Schools Offering Selected Math Courses, School Year 2011-12(Excerpted from GAO-16-345)

Science: We saw a similar pattern in Physics when we looked at schools offering Biology, Chemistry, and Physics. Among the schools with high poverty and the most Black or Hispanic students, only 55 percent offered Physics, and again, proportionally more of those were magnet schools.

Figure 6: Percentage of Middle and High Schools Offering Selected Science Courses, School Year 2011-12(Excerpted from GAO-16-345)

College prep and gifted programs: Disparities in offering Advanced Placement® courses are more apparent when comparing schools with low poverty and the fewest Black or Hispanic students (72 percent) and schools with high poverty and the most Black or Hispanic students (48 percent). Slightly more schools with high poverty and the most Black or Hispanic students offered gifted and talented programs than those with low poverty and the fewest Black or Hispanic students. Again, proportionally more magnet schools offered these courses and programs.

Figure 7: Percentage of Schools Offering Advanced Placement (AP) Courses and Gifted and Talented Education (GATE) Programs, School Year 2011-12(Excerpted from GAO-16-345)

We made recommendations to the Department of Education and the Department of Justice’s Civil Rights Division to help them identify patterns and address racial discrimination and the disparities we’ve found in these schools. You can track the status of these and all of our recommendations in our database.

There is also more information on schools in the report, on topics such as discipline, selected school districts’ efforts to increase diversity, and what the federal government has done to address discrimination and disparities in schools.


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Who Let the Watchdogs Out? We’re on Location Discussing the Internet of Things (video podcast)

GAO's Watchdog Report Big Bite!Have you ever used a fitness tracker to measure your daily steps? Or adjusted your home thermostat from your phone? If you answered yes, then you’ve experienced the Internet of Things.

If you haven’t heard the term before, the Internet of Things basically refers to how devices, appliances, and vehicles are increasingly designed to capture data and personal information, send it to the internet, and improve efficiency or assist with decision making. Is this a good thing? Are there risks?

In our latest Watchdog Report Big Bite Editionour first video podcast—we’re on location around Washington D.C. discussing our new report on the societal benefits—and potential risks—of the Internet of Things:

Continue reading

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Technology in Transit

Do you use public transportation? If so, you may have noticed that your trips are more high-tech than they used to be. That’s because transit agencies are using Intelligent Transportation Systems—like computer-aided dispatch and automatic vehicle location—to help make your neighborhood buses, trains, and metros more efficient.

For National Transportation Week, today’s WatchBlog looks at the challenges and benefits associated with this technology.

Figure 1: Use of Selected Transit ITS Technologies Continue reading

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Podcast Roundup – Recent Podcasts You May Have Missed

Watchdog ReportIt’s been a busy spring for podcasting! If you’re not subscribed on iTunes or our RSS feed, you may be missing out. Today’s WatchBlog catches you up on some of our recent podcasts. Continue reading

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Building a Better Federal Workforce

Public Service Recognition Week logoThis week marks Public Service Recognition Week. During this annual event, we usually feature some of our work on the federal workforce—and this year is no exception. Continue reading

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The DATA Act Reporting Deadline Is Here—Will Agencies Show You the Money?

Ever wonder how federal agencies spend the trillions of dollars they’re allotted each year? Well Congress did too, and it passed the Digital Accountability and Transparency Act of 2014 (DATA Act), which required agencies to submit standardized, accurate financial information so that legislators, government officials, and the taxpaying public can follow the money more closely. Continue reading

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May the Fourth Be Well Insured

photo of the earth from spaceYou should have pretty good insurance before handing your car keys to Han Solo.

While we don’t have insights into the Millennium Falcon’s insurance policy, the federal government has helped the commercial space launch industry since 1988 by sharing the liability for potential damages that could result from a launch accident.

On this Star Wars Day, the WatchBlog is examining the liability risk in commercial space launches. Continue reading

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GAO Insights into the Nation’s Finances and the Role of the Debt Limit

Today, U.S. Comptroller General Gene Dodaro delivered testimony to Congress on our nation’s unsustainable long-term fiscal position. He said that the Congress and administration face serious economic, security, and social challenges that will require difficult policy choices in the short term about the level of federal spending and investments, as well as ways to obtain needed resources. In addition to near-term financing decisions, a broader plan is needed to put the government on a more sustainable long-term fiscal path. Continue reading

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