Legislators have no idea if the state is getting its money’s worth
Gov. Tony Evers has asked that Wisconsin spend another $750 million to expand broadband in the state without knowing the current status of nearly $100 million in broadband projects paid for with federal pandemic funds.
At a hearing before the Joint Legislative Audit Committee Wednesday at the Capitol, Rebecca Cameron Valcq, chair of the Public Service Commission, acknowledged the commission failed to confirm payments, provide progress reports or do site inspections for dozens of broadband projects across the state.
State Auditor Joe Chrisman told the committee Wednesday documentation for those projects, including numerical scoring of grant applications, still had not been provided to his office, despite an audit in September critical of the lack of documentation for 83 broadband projects.
In its own audit in December, the Badger Institute found that as of July 31, 2022, nearly all of those projects outlined in the state’s Recovery Plan Performance Report for the U.S. Department of the Treasury had not been launched or information on them was not available.
Valcq told the Audit Committee that in response to the state audit the commission would in the future make clearer its application instructions, make more public its project assessment, better document all payments and step up site assessments. The commission, she said, intended to produce a policy manual by the end of the summer.
And while she said there was no evidence of waste, fraud or misappropriation of funds on completed broadband projects, Valcq was reminded that those $5 million in projects were paid for with federal CARES Act funding. Other than assurances from project managers, Valcq had no quality and integrity documentation to provide for the $99 million in broadband projects funded by the American Recovery Plan Act that were not yet started or just underway
Several committee members, including co-chair, state Sen. Eric Wimberger, R-Green Bay, peppered Valcq and Chrisman with questions about the commission’s failure to use best practices to keep track of whether the state was getting what it was paying for with broadband, regardless of the source of funding.
Taking the word of the contractor, he said, was not enough. “That’s the crux of the problem here,” Wimberger said to Valcq. “Just because I say something is accurate, doesn’t mean it happened that way.”
Wimberger expressed concern that the method the commission used to select contractors for broadband projects would lead to lawsuits.
Still, Valcq rebuffed requests from committee members to make public scoring sheets used to rank projects. Even if the sheets are not subject to public records law, releasing the data would be a best practice and enhance transparency, as recommended in the Audit Bureau review.
When asked by co-chair state Rep. Robert Wittke, R-Racine, about the slow progress of the ARPA broadband, commission staff said that at the time of the audit the commission had four employees on broadband when seven were needed. The commission has since hired two more employees.
However, when asked by Wittke, commission staff said the commission had been granted $3.4 million to administer the ARPA broadband project but had so far spent just $600,000. (The Badger Institute in October reported on the administrative costs of ARPA.)
With ARPA broadband projects way behind, the PSC is facing the possibility of an avalanche of new projects over the next decade should the Legislature approve the $750 million Evers is asking for.
CARES Act and ARPA windfalls have pushed total broadband spending in the state past $175 million over the past three years, according to PSC data. Prior to that, the state never spent more than $9 million in any one year. From 2014-17, the state spent less than $4 million total, according to the data.
How much of Evers’ budget request will come from state taxpayers and how much from federal taxpayers is in flux. The most recent trillion-dollar congressional spending bill, the Infrastructure Investment and Jobs Act passed in November, includes $65 billion in new federal broadband spending.
Depending on federal approval of its internet coverage maps, the PSC estimates the state will get between $700 million and $1.2 billion of that Jobs Act funding, enough to cover most or all of Evers’ request.
What was made clear by the Joint Legislative Audit Committee on Wednesday is that the PSC has so far documented no standards by which the current broadband projects – federal or state funded – can be measured.
State Sen. Howard Marklein, R-Spring Green, a member of the committee, said that at the least the PSC should be able to produce written proof that work has been done and that it is being paid for.
“Did we get what we paid for,” Marklein asked. “I’m concerned we don’t have hard evidence that the citizens are being served.”
Mark Lisheron is the Managing Editor of the Badger Institute. Permission to reprint is granted as long as the author and Badger Institute are properly cited.