MADISON — A state committee is directing the Legislative Audit Bureau to perform a comprehensive review the river of federal pandemic relief dollars that have flowed into the state, principally focused on how Gov. Tony Evers has spent the $4.9 billion he has treated like a re-election campaign fund.
The Joint Legislative Audit Committee on Wednesday also approved an audit of the Evers’ administration’s Division of Community Corrections, amid concerns the agency’s resistance to revoking parole and probation of offenders in the corrections system has endangered public safety.
Democrats voted for the audits alongside their Republican colleagues, but they complained every step of the way.
State. Sen. Melissa Agard (D-Madison) wanted everyone to know what a great job Evers has done in “using those dollars on behalf of the people of Wisconsin.” She said she’s grateful and and hopeful there is “gratitude” for “the work Gov. Evers has done.”
After Wednesday’s hearing, Agard wrote in a tweet that Evers “acted quickly with these federal dollars because he knows that people were hurting and he needed to act quickly.”
A Legislative Audit Bureau document obtained by Empower Wisconsin shows otherwise.
And the administration certainly hasn’t done anything to improve its horrible reputation on transparency and accountability, a big reason why lawmakers are demanding a deep dive audit into Evers’ spending — or lack thereof — thus far.
“It’s a lot of money and we don’t have an understanding of how it’s being spent,” said Sen. Robert Cowles (R-Green Bay), co-chair of the Joint Audit Committee. “Is it amplifying existing programs? Is it being used in a way the statutes outline? We need to know that.”
Evers has been slow to spend the latest round of federal COVID aid almost completely at his disposal, raising Republican concerns the Democrat is squirreling away the money to use as a taxpayer-funded, re-election campaign slush fund. As of Jan. 9, the Democrat had only spent about a third of the $1.47 million Wisconsin received last May in federal American Rescue Plan Act funds, according to a report prepared for legislative leadership by state Auditor Joe Chrisman.
Evers has vetoed the Republican-controlled Legislature’s proposals to give the First Branch more say in how the federal funding is spent, insisting the Legislature would only slow down the distribution of critical relief.
“We’re in a pandemic — we need to make decisions on a timely basis,” Evers said in December 2020.
State Rep. Mark Born (R-Beaver Dam), co-chair of the Legislature’s budget-writing committee, said the governor is sitting on “vast amounts of money” that he seems to be sparingly doling out more to help his re-election chances than the people of Wisconsin.
Audit Committee members finally got some answers from the administration Wednesday, when newly installed Department of Administration Secretary-designee Kathy Blumenfeld ticked off some key numbers. Blumenfeld, Evers’ former Department of Financial Institutions chief, recently replaced outgoing DOA Secretary Joel Brennan, who announced his departure in December.
Blumenfeld said Wisconsin has taken in about $4.9 billion through the two major federal COVID relief programs, the American Rescue Plan and CARES acts. Blumenfeld listed the key areas where the money is being spent — including $1 billion in grants and other assistance for small businesses.
But a bullet point overview, photo-ops and press releases are a long way from a thorough review of the funds and the expenditures, and the choices Team Evers has made. How many of Evers’ political pals have benefitted from the unprecedented amounts of taxpayer money the governor controls— like the $1 million grant that went to a company owned by a Wisconsin Economic Development Corp. board member? What about concerns Evers misspent the money on non-COVID-related initiatives? Could the administration have done more to prepare for the late fall/early winter surge in COVID cases? Could the governor have targeted more funding to help Wisconsin’s older population and others at highest risk of the virus?
Chrisman, the state auditor, said the audit will take a long time to prepare. It is not expected to be released before November’s election. The fact that Evers is off the hook until after Election Day perhaps made committee Democrats more inclined to vote for the audit.