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Evers’ COVID aid spending offers a lot to audit

By M.D. Kittle

MADISON — The Evers administration incompetence train rolls on.

A new state audit found Wisconsin’s Public Service Commission failed to track how much federal COVID aid internet providers spent to expand broadband in underserved areas.

The Legislative Audit Bureau report is one of more to come on Gov. Tony Evers’ and his appointees’ handling of the billions of dollars in federal COVID relief the Democrat has been given nearly sole discretion over.

In the case of the broadband audit, Evers’ two liberal appointees on the PSC were in such a rush to spend the $105 million in Coronavirus Aid, Relief, and Economic Security (CARES) Act and American Rescue Plan Act (ARPA) grants that the regulator failed to do some basic follow-up.

“PSC required telecommunication providers to request reimbursement for project costs and submit supporting documents, such as invoices, payroll reports, and receipts. PSC also required providers to attest that their reimbursement requests complied with the terms of the grant agreements, were related to the projects, and were properly supported,” the audit states. “However, providers were not required to attest that the reimbursement requests were for amounts they had actually paid to construct the projects.”

And state auditors found the PSC failed to establish “written program policies for administering the CARES Act funds. In addition, PSC did not establish comprehensive written program policies for administering the ARPA funds.”

Commissioner Ellen Nowak, appointed to the PSC by former Gov. Scott Walker, a Republican, was the lone vote against the CARES Act awards. The other commission members, Chairwoman Rebecca Cameron Valcq and Tyler Huebner, appointed by Evers, voted for the grants to broadband partners.

Nowak told the Cap Times that the commission “basically made it up as we went along.”

“The rush to get it out the door seemed to be more important than, ‘Is it being spent wisely?’ And that was my biggest concern, particularly with the CARES Act round,” she told the publication. “To me, it was all about press releases.”

Photo-Op Funding 

There have been a lot of press releases from Evers’ office and his administration on the unprecedented number of taxpayer-funded grants distributed over the last couple of years. And plenty of photo-ops with the Democrat standing with big checks.

Evers’ critics say he has used the nearly $5 billion in federal COVID relief to the state as an unregulated campaign slush fund in a re-election year. He’s been all over the state making big grant announcements, and routinely in Madison and Milwaukee — Wisconsin’s largest cities rich with Democrat votes.

Broadband projects fall under the appropriation’s generally flexible authorized uses. ARPA funds, for instance, may be used in four fiscal recovery areas, according to the U.S. Treasury:

  • Responding to public health needs and economic damage from the pandemic
  • Providing premium (i.e., hazard) pay for essential workers
  • Replacing lost revenue
  • Investing in necessary water and broadband infrastructure

But Evers’ spending orgy has raised some “appropriate use” questions along the way.

Last month, the governor announced more than $4.5 million in funding to advance projects “of significant importance to several communities, conservation and natural resource protection, and the state’s multi-billion-dollar outdoor recreation economy.”

The grants include:

  • Ozaukee Washington Land Trust: These funds will support the Ozaukee Washington Land Trust in conservation, education, and stewardship efforts that protect the area’s natural resources and promote lakeshore recreation and safe harbor access, and conservation of unique, critical shoreline habitat. Initially the Ozaukee Washington Land Trust had a stewardship request for 50 percent of the acquisition cost for the 131-acre Cedar Gorge-Clay Bluffs Preserve.
  • Milwaukee Public Schools Outdoor Spaces: These funds will support new playground equipment, playfield renovations, and other needed upgrades and development of outdoor recreation and green spaces. Initially MPS had a stewardship request objected to by Joint Finance Committee for 25 percent of the estimated project cost for Milwaukee Modrzejewski Park, which was objected to by a JFC member.
  • Caroline Lake Preserve, Ashland County: These funds will provide 50 percent of The Nature Conservancy’s acquisition cost for 34.5 acres, including shoreline, to allow for public access to the northwest corner of Caroline Lake State Natural Area, conserve upland and wetland wildlife habitat, and expand recreation opportunities. This land acquisition project was objected to by a member of JFC.
  • Forest County: This acquisition in the Town of Nashville will ensure continued sustainable county forest management on highly productive forest land, enhance recreation access, and safeguard watershed and wildlife habitat on 160 acres, which was a project objected to by a JFC member.
  • Sand Creek, Bayfield County: This acquisition of productive forest lands in the towns of Bayfield and Bell will ensure continued forest management on highly productive forest lands. In addition to providing public access for nature-based outdoor activities, the project will protect Lake Superior watersheds and safeguard wildlife habitat on 1,999 acres adjacent to over 75,000 acres of Bayfield County Forest lands. This land acquisition project was objected to by a JFC member.

While these conservation projects may or may not be in the public’s interest, it’s a stretch to fit them into the four authorized uses of ARPA funds, the money source for  Evers’ latest cash drop. Should taxpayers in Indiana or Florida or Arizona have to pay for Wisconsin’s natural resources and conservation projects with money that was allocated for COVID mitigation and recovery?

‘Improper Payments’

Responding to the pandemic, Congress appropriated $4.6 trillion in emergency assistance for individuals, businesses, the health care system, and state and local governments.

“Improper payments have been a significant concern in pandemic spending, especially among large programs like unemployment insurance and small business loans,” according to a report earlier this year by the Government Accountability Office.

Federal agencies alone made about $281 billion in improper payments in FY 2021—an increase of $75 billion from the prior fiscal year and about double the amount reported in FY 2017, GAO reported.

In Wisconsin, the Evers administration has failed or has been slow to spend targeted COVID relief for the workers forced out of work through state and local stay-at-home orders and restrictions.

As Wisconsin Spotlight has reported, Evers’ Department of Workforce Development’s bungling forced tens of thousands out-of-work Wisconsinites to wait months for their benefits after a flood of claims hit the system last year.

“Wisconsin was one of the worst performing states across many different metrics,” a study last year from the University of Wisconsin-Madison’s Center for Research on the Wisconsin Economy (CROWE) found.

The report — “The (Poor) Performance of the Unemployment System During COVID-19 in the United States and (Especially) Wisconsin” — also noted the Evers administration failed to check fraudulent activity. Amid growing reports of rampant fraud, the fraud detection rate has plummeted to near zero, with detected fraud cases down 41 percent as claims have exploded.

The state Legislative Audit Bureau is currently conducting an extensive audit into how the Evers administration has spent the federal funds. 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 thus far.

“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. “Is it amplifying existing programs? Is it being used in a way the statutes outline? We need to know that.”

The audit is not expected to be released before November’s election.

Empower Wisconsin | Sept. 9, 2022

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