Empower Wisconsin | Dec. 15, 2022
By M.D. Kittle
MADISON — A new state audit finds what lawmakers and fiscal watchdogs have known for a long time: Gov. Tony Evers’ administration has failed to be transparent with the billions of dollars in federal COVID cash it has handed out.
The Legislative Audit Bureau’s latest review also finds Evers has yet to send out nearly $1.9 billion of the funds as of June 30, although the Department of Administration indicated this month “it had plans” for expending the money.
In total, DOA took in $5.7 billion in supplemental federal funds in pandemic relief — including from the Coronavirus Aid, Relief, and Economic Security (CARES) Act, the American Rescue Plan Act (ARPA), and the Consolidated Appropriations Act. The funds were distributed between March 2020 through June 2022.
Federal law allowed Evers the discretion to spend $4.5 billion of the funds as he saw fit, but $1.1 billion had to be spent for specified purposes, such as on particular programs the state administers.
As lawmakers and state fiscal trackers have complained, the administration has failed to provide details on how it determined who would get the discretionary federal funds.
“DOA did not provide us with information DOA indicated it and the Governor’s Office had considered in deciding to use discretionary funds for the nine state programs that we selected for our review,” the Audit Bureau report states. DOA has provided the nonpartisan agency with information on what it plans to do with the remaining $1.8 billion.
Evers has some time to spend. Federal law permits some supplemental federal funds to be spent through December 2026.
DOA should increase the transparency and clarity of the state’s use of the federal funds, “including by documenting how decisions were made to use discretionary funds for particular state programs,” said State Auditor Joe Chrisman in the latest report.
“It should also include on its website additional information about supplemental federal funds, including plans for spending the remaining funds and how such plans change over time,” he wrote. “Providing clear and comprehensive information will allow legislators and the public to more readily identify how these funds are spent in the future.”
Republican lawmakers and conservative news outlets like Empower Wisconsin have been asking the administration for details on its handling of the federal taxpayer-funded grants. Evers was especially active in announcing big grants and targeted funds in the months leading up to November’s election, prompting criticism that the governor was using the money as a kind of unregulated re-election campaign slush fund.
There’s a theme here building for a governor whose first term was marked by repeated open government failures.
A state audit late last month found Evers’ Department of Revenue failed to follow its written eligibility requirements in awarding 45 grants totaling $475,000 from the federal COVID relief dollars. That’s 26 percent of the 172 program grants under review, and nearly 12 percent of the $4.1 million in awards examined in the Audit Bureau’s limited scope audit.
“It’s a lot of money and we don’t have an understanding of how it’s being spent,” Sen. Robert Cowles (R-Green Bay), co-chair of the Joint Audit Committee said in February as the Audit Bureau began its extensive audit of the administration’s handling of the federal funds. “Is it amplifying existing programs? Is it being used in a way the statutes outline? We need to know that.”