DOA says it didn’t keep track of $4 billion in emergency spending decisions
The public is unlikely to ever know how the state Department of Administration came to decide how to allocate and spend nearly $4 billion from three federal pandemic emergency spending bills.
Questioned by a sometimes frustrated Joint Legislative Audit Committee Tuesday at the Capitol, DOA leaders acknowledged that many of the decisions about how to allocate money to state agencies and local governments were made in phone conversations and emails with Gov. Tony Evers and his staff that were not documented.
There is no documented rationale for how much agencies would be granted or why they were granted those amounts. How the money has been spent is also often impossible to decipher given the lack of tracking or records.
The absence of recordkeeping was first discovered in early June during an audit by the Legislative Audit Bureau. In its report, issued in December, the bureau said DOA and the Evers administration provided to them anecdotal and undocumented information about how the state and its agencies intended to spend the emergency funds provided through the CARES Act, American Rescue Plan Act and the Investment and Jobs Act.
Kathy Blumenfeld, DOA’s secretary designee, told the committee the department intended to comply with the audit’s recommendation to document the decision-making for the additional roughly $1.8 billion the state has yet to allocate or spend.
State Sen. Devin LeMahieu, R-Oostburg, has filed open records requests with DOA for any documentation not already provided to auditors pertaining to emergency spending decisions, she said.
But it was clear during an exchange with committee co-chair Rep. Robert Wittke, R-Racine, that the department had nothing more to provide state auditors before the department was to have reported back on Feb. 17.
“We can’t produce — we wouldn’t want to, it wouldn’t be right — something that doesn’t exist,” Blumenfeld told Wittke.
Wittke told Blumenfeld he found it “really frustrating” as an elected official to be unable to get even basic information about an allocation made through a state agency for a project in his district.
Similar complaints about a lack of transparency arose early last year, prompting the Badger Institute to call for a comprehensive audit of all state spending of federal emergency funds, beginning in March of 2020.
Chris Patton, DOA deputy secretary, told the committee that in hindsight the kind of documentation requested by auditors was in order but that in the chaotic first months of the pandemic the goal was to allocate money as quickly as possible.
Several committee members, however, pointed out that DOA was unable to document any spending rationale for the American Rescue Plan Act, the third of the spending bills, passed nearly two years ago.
“The Department of Administration failed to provide the Audit Bureau with even the most basic documents and information used to make federal funding decisions,” co-chair Sen. Eric Wimberger, R-Green Bay said in a statement issued after the meeting. “The public has a right to know how priorities for this funding were determined and why.”
While the Audit Bureau has not undertaken an audit of all federal spending so far, it has been critical of DOA’s lack of transparency and documentation in three targeted agency and program audits.
The Badger Institute has found the same lack of transparency and accountability on the part of the Evers administration and Department of Administration as it has tracked the spending.
As Wimberger pointed out at the hearing, the lack of recordkeeping has made it difficult for elected officials, state and local, to understand why, where and how money was allocated but also to assess the effectiveness of that spending.
A lot of that spending — at least 60% of it — hasn’t yet been done according to a DOA document obtained by the Badger Institute. And the overwhelming number of programs developed with the emergency funding in mind haven’t gotten off the ground yet, according to our review of the Recovery Plan Performance Report for the U.S. Department of the Treasury.
It becomes particularly important, as the Badger Institute recently uncovered, because a growing number of governments across the state have turned to using pandemic money to plug holes in their budgets, holes that will have to be filled with state or local tax money when the federal funding is exhausted.
Without a broad assessment of how the federal money was and is being spent, what are elected officials to make of Gov. Evers’ request to include in the state’s next budget $500 million to address a “burgeoning crisis” in mental and behavioral health, particularly among our children, created by the impact of the pandemic?
As we’ve recently reported, there is not enough publicly available information to determine whether enough of the state’s share of the three spending bills — passed specifically to address the pandemic — has or will be spent on mental and behavioral health.
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.