By MARK LISHERON | March 1, 2022
Wisconsin voters could make 2023 a watershed year for oversight of currently unchecked spending of billions of dollars of federal funding flowing into the state.
The State Assembly last week passed a measure that would eventually give Wisconsin voters an opportunity to amend the state Constitution and give the Legislature authority over some federal spending. The Senate is expected sometime next week to vote on the same resolution – which cannot be vetoed by Gov. Evers – and if it is again passed by both houses in the next session, it could be placed on a statewide ballot in 2023.
The Joint Legislative Audit Committee, in the meantime, has also directed the Legislative Audit Bureau to begin an audit of federal pandemic emergency spending.
That directive on Feb. 2 came just weeks after the Badger Institute publicly voiced its support for more legislative oversight of the spending and for a statewide audit similar to one launched by Connecticut after an FBI investigation uncovered fraud by city employees.
The Wisconsin audit is expected to be completed sometime in the fall, Samantha Kerkman, co-chair of the Joint Legislative Audit Committee, told the Badger Institute. It was unclear if any or all of the audit findings would be available to the public before the midterm elections in November.
“A final audit won’t tell us where every dollar went, but the voters have a right to know if these billions of dollars went where they were supposed to go,” said Rep. Mark Born, R-Beaver Dam. Born is co-chair of the Joint Committee on Finance and a member of the Joint Audit Committee.
The Badger Institute, in the meantime, will continue its investigation of the Coronavirus Aid, Relief, and Economic Security (CARES) Act and American Rescue Plan Act (ARPA) spending at the local level based on original reporting and records requests independent of the state’s canvass. The Institute’s work is focused on determining not just if spending met the letter of the law but whether it truly made Wisconsin safer or more economically resilient during the pandemic.
One recent Badger Institute story, for instance, found that at the height of the initial COVID-19 outbreak, correctional and other public safety agencies in Wisconsin used federal funds to buy at least 55 disinfection robots at a cost of more than $2.2 million.
While those who bought the robots credited them for helping prevent the spread of the virus, they did not relieve staff of manually spraying and wiping down jail cells, intake reception and common areas.
Several jail administrators who said they were tempted to get a robot with the “free” federal money, said they chose not to and thought they did just as well with traditional disinfection methods.
Because the parameters of the legislative audit are very general, the Institute will encourage the state to be as granular as possible in tracking the federal dollars and also determine exactly when dollars were spent – during the worst of the actual pandemic or long after.
State Auditor Joe Chrisman outlined the general goals of the audit in a letter to the Joint Committee. Among those goals:
· Determine how much funding was allocated by agency and program and learn how those allocations were decided.
· Trace the policies and procedures agencies followed in overseeing and spending funds and assessing whether the policies and procedures were followed.
· Determine if and how local governments and agencies received funding through the various state funding administrators and whether those funds were used properly at the local level.
· Assess how state agencies performed and how they could improve on the distribution of this kind of federal funding in the future.
Chrisman did not respond to a request by the Badger Institute to discuss the scope and the timetable of the state audit.
The Badger Institute has since April 2021 been investigating city and county spending of money from a $190 million local aid grants program that comes from the first of the pandemic relief bills, the (CARES) Act, passed in 2020.
Last fall, the Badger Institute identified more than $100 million in unspent CARES Act money from just 14 of the state’s largest cities and counties. In a report prepared for Finance and Audit Committee leaders, Chrisman found that at the end of 2021 more than $85 million remained to be spent.
At the same time, more than $930 million of the state’s first $1.5 billion installment from the second federal relief bill, ARPA, has not yet been spent, according to Chrisman’s report. The state has been allotted at least $3 billion in two more installments.
As the Badger Institute reported last fall, U.S. Sen. Ron Johnson and U.S. Rep. Bryan Steil, both Wisconsin Republicans, have repeatedly called for more disclosure of pandemic spending from Gov. Tony Evers and his administration. Steil said Evers largely ignored a series of letters he sent to the governor asking for a breakdown of CARES Act spending.
The tardiness of the spending and the dearth of information about how, where and why it was being spent prompted the call for an audit, Born told the Badger Institute.
“There were a lot of members asking questions, and we found that our hands were tied getting answers to those questions,” Born said. “Our Legislative Fiscal Bureau was getting stonewalled, too.”
Born acknowledged that the state had never faced the challenge of spending huge amounts of money in overlapping waves. Other than press releases from Evers’ office, there are no mechanisms in place to keep track of spending along the chain to the local level, he said.
Evers has repeatedly rebuffed Republican efforts to give the Assembly some say in how the pandemic funding would be distributed, arguing that legislative interference would only slow down the process of getting emergency funding where it needed to go.
The Badger Institute on Feb. 1 submitted testimony in favor of the constitutional amendment to members of the state Assembly Committee on Constitution and Ethics.
There is reason to worry when there are huge sums of money that were directed at an emergency that “looks more and more like it’s in our rearview mirror,” Born said.
“All along, the governor said he didn’t want to be hamstrung by the Legislature getting this money out the door. When you base your rhetoric on speed and you’re not speedy, I’m concerned that shows a lack of leadership.”
Unlike Connecticut, Born said the call for an audit was not prompted by criminal activity.Connecticut legislators in November ordered a statewide audit after two city employees, one of them a former state lawmaker, were charged with siphoning nearly $650,000 in CARES Act funds into a front company they created.
“Anecdotally, I haven’t heard of anything like that here in the state,” Born said. “What I have heard from people in my district, Dodge County and Beaver Dam, they’ve been sitting on most of their money for the last year waiting to figure out how to spend it. They say the rules keep changing all the time. You wonder about that.”
Mark Lisheron is managing editor of Diggings. Permission to reprint is granted as long as the author and Badger Institute are properly cited.