Getting to the meat of ARPA spending

By now, the health emergency has little to do with it 

By Mark Lisheron

May 26, 2022 – Another day, another politicized repurposing of the monumental sums that were supposed to help us survive the COVID-19 pandemic. 

On Tuesday, the press office for Gov. Tony Evers announced that $10 million would be made available in grants to meat processors. The money would, of course, be coming from a billion-dollar American Rescue Plan Act (ARPA) stash atop which the governor and the governor alone sits. But the words COVID and pandemic aren’t even in the press release

For nearly a year, with metronomic regularity, the multi-million-dollar directives have come, almost always with a disclaimer that this group or that industry was hit hard by the coronavirus. I think we can all agree that all of us were hard hit by COVID. 

Maybe because we’re more than two years out and it’s getting increasingly hard to spend money on an emergency when there no longer appears to be an emergency, that the Evers administration is asking ARPA funding to shoulder a heavier load. 

Back in March, he announced a disbursement of $86 million in ARPA money for “diverse business investment,” the definition of which will be decided by two dozen chambers of commerce and a host of nonprofits, presumably with a stake in the outcome. 

A month earlier, he disbursed $82 million in ARPA grants “aimed at increasing equity and eliminating disparities in health, early childhood development, education, economic support, housing, and environmental justice.”  

The Treasury Department’s 117 pages of guidelines for coronavirus spending have plenty to say about health but not a word about increasing equity and environmental justice. But they do leave plenty of room for state and local officials to be creative with taxpayer dollars. 

Wisconsin Public Radio acknowledged the obvious this week with the creation of the ARPA-underwritten Meat and Poultry Supply Chain Resiliency Grant Program. “The GOP-led state Legislature gutted Gov. Tony Evers’ plans for an annual grant program for meat processors in last year’s state budget process, allocating only a tenth of the funding originally proposed,” the story said. “But the Democratic governor has found a way around the cut by allocating federal pandemic recovery money for his own program.” 

What makes this galling is how elected officials up and down the patronage chain have tied the meat industry to the whipsaw. Meat prices, particularly beef, had been stable for many years. I know. I do the shopping in our house.

Prices for meat and everything else began to rocket as an economy, flush with the first trillion-dollar CARES Act bailout, inflated like a balloon with ARPA funds. And having created the problem, the politicians responded by doing two entirely characteristic things at once: blaming the meat industry and offering it $1 billion in ARPA money. 

“The president [and] the secretary of agriculture have both spoken to what we've seen as the greed of meat conglomerates,” former presidential press secretary Jen Psaki said during a press briefing in December. “The prices are higher. That is, in his view and in the view of our secretary of agriculture, because of – you could call it corporate greed, sure. You could call it jacking up prices during a pandemic.” 

President Biden was, even then, in the process of crafting a plan that would give more than $600 million to those greedy meat conglomerates. The rest, in theory, would go to whatever feisty upstarts wanted to take a crack at the likes of Tyson Foods.

Unfortunately, that ain’t gonna happen unless Congress amends or abolishes the Wholesome Meat Act of 1967. The commercial meat industry over the past 55 years – from slaughter to packaging to sales – has developed in strict accordance with the demands of USDA regulation. Although it has gone almost unreported, these regulations are largely responsible for our great meat conglomeration. Little guys can’t compete. 

Aside from sanity, what has been lost in this government spend-a-thon is a focus on why voters gave their Congress-ladies-and-gentlemen permission to spend their money in the first place. Few people begrudged spending tied explicitly to a health emergency. But it’s clear that we’ve given the government way too much latitude and inflation is now the menace. The best we can hope for is a whole lot of prudence and accountability.

And just so you don’t think we’re singling out our current governor, the Badger Institute was an early supporter of a proposal that would allow voters to amend the state constitution so the legislature shares with the governor responsibility for major federal spending, regardless of who is in office.

We hope that might help, realizing full well that repurposing monumental sums for political reasons is a time-honored and bipartisan pastime.

Mark Lisheron is the managing editor of the Badger Institute’s Diggings magazine. Permission to reprint is granted as long as the author and Badger Institute are properly cited.