Empower Wisconsin | Jan. 5, 2020
By M.D. Kittle
MADISON — A state lawmaker says the Evers administration is handing out coronavirus aid to businesses that haven’t been hit by the pandemic, some that have done very well in 2020.
State. Sen. Mary Felzkowski worries lax tracking of the federally funded payments will keep taxpayers in the dark, the latest transparency problem for an administration that has struggled with accountability.
Gov. Tony Evers in early December announced the third round of “We’re All In” grants — $45 million worth — to restaurants and other targeted businesses. Unlike previous grants from the program, businesses did not have to apply for the assistance. The Department of Revenue identified them through state tax records and contacted them.
In all, the We’re All In program had distributed more than $220 million to small businesses as of early December, according to the governor’s office. The restaurant relief funding is the third phase. The first phase included some $65 million in grants to 26,000-plus businesses across the state, and the second round delivered $120 million in funding to north of 24,000 small businesses, according to the administration.
Press releases and media reports made it sound like the Democrat was delivering Christmas presents to the businesses that he and local health bureaucrats nearly destroyed through statewide shutdowns and strict health orders in their overreaching responses to the pandemic.
In October, Evers shrugged off the damage done, asserting his administration’s statewide order taking 75 percent of business away from restaurants, bars, retailers and others “is not closing anything.”
“They still have 25 percent capacity to work with,” he dismissively said.
The three rounds of grant funding weren’t gifts, and they didn’t come from Evers, his administration or the state. The funding is compliments of federal taxpayers through the $2 trillion CARES Act. And it apparently has, at least in some cases, been misspent, according to Felzkowski.
“We know that businesses across the state of Wisconsin have been hurt by COVID-19 and by Gov. Evers’ shutdown, but there’s a lot of businesses that haven’t been hit,” the Irma Republican said.
The problem, Felzkowski said, is that the We’re All In program wasn’t need-based. Businesses didn’t have to show they were hit hard by the pandemic.
“So, in other words, instead of this money going to the businesses that really needed it, it was just spread out to all businesses whether they had any kind of loss or not,” the lawmaker said. She added that she knows numerous contractors who received grants even though they counted 2020 among their most profitable years.
The original We’re All In small business grant program required applying businesses to be Wisconsin-based and for profit; have 20 or fewer full-time equivalent employees, including the owner; record less than $1 million in annual revenue; and been in business prior to Jan. 1, 2020, and operating as of February 2020. Grant scoring did favor businesses in the most distressed industries and locations.
In the second round, businesses had to have “suffered an economic loss as a result of the COVID-19 pandemic. An economic loss may be from lost revenue or increased expenses as a result of the pandemic,” according to the Department of Revenue. But the agency’s webpage doesn’t specify an amount.
It all is raising questions as to whether the program is targeting the businesses most in need.
“I have no problem helping those businesses that have been shut down and, in my opinion, shut down illegally by the governor, and the ones that are hurting,” Felzkowski said. “But it shouldn’t be a spreading of the wealth to whoever based on the tax records.”
“We’re all in this together, whether you have a loss or not,” she sarcastically added.