Steil: “So many people should be frustrated”
Twenty months after Congress passed a bill that rained $2.53 billion down on Wisconsin, the governor’s office in sole charge of administering the funding, as well as legislative audit and budget officials, have almost no idea of how all that money is being spent.
Nine months after state Legislative Audit Committee members called for a comprehensive audit of the spending, the Legislative Audit Bureau has so far produced two audits that scrutinized a tiny fraction of the spending. In both studies, the LAB concluded that local and state agencies have collected and analyzed so little data that it’s impossible to know who is being paid for what.
And from what state Rep. Mark Born (R-Beaver Dam) has been told, the LAB has no plans for a deep dive that might show some of the staggering waste, fraud and abuse that has already shown up at the federal level, as the Badger Institute has reported.
“This administration (Gov. Tony Evers) is just not sharing the information with us,” Born told the Badger Institute. “These two smaller audits show us there’s a lot to be concerned about. I’m just as frustrated that the administration doesn’t want to share it and the mainstream media doesn’t want to report it.”
The Badger Institute in February pressed for a full audit and has for nearly two years investigated spending of the federal CARES Act and the American Rescue Plan Act (ARPA), a project called Tracking the Trillions. Our reporting has established that waste, fraud and abuse is baked into mammoth federal and state spending plans.
Most recently, we’ve uncovered tens of millions of dollars in ARPA funds being spent by county and local governments to administer the avalanche of ARPA funds dumped on them.
In testimony given in February to the Assembly Committee on Constitution and Ethics, Badger Institute President Mike Nichols said, “We believe both an audit of past spending and legislative approval of all future federal spending would provide taxpayers with the oversight and accountability they deserve.”
At the beginning of March, the Badger Institute reported that the Legislative Audit Bureau at the direction of the Audit Committee had begun an audit of ARPA spending. Then-Rep. Samantha Kerkman (R-Burlington), co-chair of the committee, told the Badger Institute she expected the audit sometime this fall.
However, in a Jan. 28 letter obtained by the Badger Institute, State Auditor Joe Chrisman made clear to the committee the bureau was required by the state Single Audit Act to do such a “comprehensive audit of federal programs” but that it “does not assess how state agencies performed when administering programs or the results achieved by the programs administered.”
Instead, Chrisman told the committee the Audit Bureau would maintain strict control over which agencies or programs would have their ARPA spending audited and the scope of those audits.
When asked in an email about a comprehensive ARPA audit and the scope of such an audit, Dean Swenson, deputy state auditor for performance evaluation, said only, “The scope memorandum indicates that we plan to complete the audit by examining supplemental federal funding spent through selected state programs.”
In September, the bureau published an audit centered mostly on the Public Service Commission’s 83 grants to counties and local governments for broadband improvements.
That $100 million constitutes one of the state’s larger ARPA programs, but it is a small fraction of the $2.53 billion the ARPA bill granted overall to Wisconsin. The audit, however, reviewed just $4.9 million of that spending, and admitted that, from the 384 documents provided by the Public Service Commission, it was impossible to determine for what and how much local governments were paying for their broadband projects.
Without sufficient documentation to assess the quality of the spending, the audit recommended that the PSC “establish comprehensive written policies for administering broadband expansion grant programs.”
The first of the bureau’s ARPA audits — of nearly $97 million for rental and homelessness assistance — was compromised by the Department of Administration, the governor’s ARPA administration agency.
The bureau in May issued an audit that again used a minute sampling of spending, made no attempt to assess the spending and, instead, focused on procedure.
Of the $64 million in ARPA funding for rental assistance and $32.5 million for so-called emergency solutions, the bureau reviewed 40 of nearly 20,000 case files, according to the audit. Those 40 had been provided to the DOA by case workers rather than chosen at random by DOA, the audit says.
The audit recommends, essentially, that the DOA not do that again and to report its procedural changes to the LAB.
Born was careful not to criticize the LAB directly but said the Department of Administration’s role in the rental assistance audit is indicative of the overall lack of transparency with pandemic spending by the Evers administration.
“We’ve asked for a role in how this money is spent, and Gov. Evers has specifically said no and blocked us twice,” Born said.
Republicans in the last legislative session passed a measure to put the issue of major federal spending authority on the ballot in the form of a change to the state constitution.
The amendment would require a joint committee of the Legislature to approve the spending of most federal funds by any executive branch official or department.
The Legislature must pass the amendment again in the next session before such a change to the constitution could be put to a statewide vote.
U.S. Rep. Bryan Steil (R-Janesville) has repeatedly asked for the same kind of transparency at the federal level. In addition to there being no need to rescue anybody, Steil said he voted against the Rescue Act because the CARES Act established that no one in Washington really cares about how this federal taxpayer money is spent.
“I’ve had countless conversations with people, and I haven’t been able to tell people how all of this money is being spent,” Steil said. “I wish more people were upset. So many people should be so frustrated.”
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.