Empower Wisconsin | May 21, 2020
By M.D. Kittle
MADISON — About the time Gov. Tony Evers was forced to admit Monday that his administration couldn’t lock down the state again, the Democrat issued a press release announcing $75 million in grant funds for Wisconsin small businesses.
As Empower Wisconsin learned, Team Evers sent out the press release on his “We’re All In” initiative without a plan to get the money to eligible applicants.
“WEDC (Wisconsin Economic Development Corp.) has told us they have not yet finalized their guidelines for the new ‘All-in’ program, and will have more information available when they do,” legislative leadership notes obtained by Empower Wisconsin state.
A WEDC official did not return Empower Wisconsin’s requests for comment.
The program is expected to deliver individual $2,500 grants to small businesses “most impacted by the duration and restrictions of the COVID-19 pandemic.” In other words, the businesses most impacted by Evers’ original lockdown of the state, and his health chief’s extended stay-at-home order.
Program funding will come from federal Coronavirus Aid, Relief, and Economic Security (CARES) Act money, part of nearly $2 billion in federal relief.
Eligible small businesses will be able to apply in early June — if Evers and WEDC can put the guidelines of the plan together by then.
“These $2,500 cash grants will assist with the costs of business interruption or for health and safety improvements, wages and salaries, rent, mortgages, and inventory,” the press release states.
Critics said the grants, while a small piece of recovery, won’t go far in paying for more than two months of businesses being shut down or forced to dial back much of their operations because of Evers’ Safer at Home edict. Scott Manley, Wisconsin Manufacturers and Commerce’s executive vice president for Government Relations, said $2,500 probably wouldn’t pay a month’s rent for a lot of Wisconsin’s small businesses, let alone make up for the loss of revenue they’ve endured over the past two-plus months.
“Keep in mind, a lot of small businesses borrow money to purchase supplies and the goods they sell,” he said. “They have been told for the last two months that they can’t be open, they can’t have (in-store) revenue coming in to make payments on that debt. That puts them in a very difficult position.”
“It’s fair to say that, as nice of a gesture as it is, (the $2,500 grant) is not going to come close to moving the needle in terms of rescuing businesses already permanently closed or right on the brink of closing,” Manley added.
The $2,500 grants will be for small businesses with 20 or fewer full-time employees that have not already received WEDC COVID-19 assistance, according to the press release. That means up to 30,000 businesses can receive the grants. The assistance money would cover about $277 a week in lost revenue over nine weeks of business disruption, to date. For many small businesses, that’s a drop in the bucket.
Evers’ initiative comes with strings, of course.
It includes, “A series of guides for businesses looking to implement best practices to keep employees, customers, and communities safe throughout the COVID-19 crisis. These guides are an essential part of the We’re All In program …” They demand that businesses “Cooperate fully with any state or local health department contact tracing efforts.”
Team Evers also says the grant program will include an “integrated public information campaign promoting “We’re All In” businesses and social practices to “prevent the spread of COVID-19 and celebrate Wisconsin’s diverse and strong economy.” So, the Evers administration wants to use grant recipients as promotional tools for its economic development recovery promotion.
How many hoops will small businesses have to jump through to get a $2,500? We won’t fully know until WEDC comes out with its guidelines.
“Putting out $75 million for business owners without a plan is indicative of a governor who will, once again, tell us later how it’s going to work,” said state Rep. Janel Brandtjen (R-Menomonee Falls). The lawmaker was referencing a common complaint about Evers issuing executive orders without fully explaining how they would be implemented.
As Evers congratulates himself on spending $75 million of federal money on a “nice gesture,” he announced another program Wednesday that would provide up to $3,000 in funding for rental assistance for those with household income at or below 80 percent of the county medium income. In Dane County, for instance, eligible households could earn up to about $50,000 annually.
Once again, team Evers announced a grant program without details. State Sen. Van Wanggaard (R-Racine) told AP the governor was giving “false hope of help” by announcing the program without details, like how to apply. The administration website said the details would be available soon.