By M.D. Kittle
MADISON — Gov. Tony 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 $541.7 million of the approximately $1.47 billion in the first installment of American Rescue Plan Act funds released last May, according to a report prepared for legislative leadership by state Auditor Joe Chrisman. That amounts to just about a third of the total funds. Evers had yet to spend about $930.7 million as of Jan. 9, the most recent data available.
Later this year, Wisconsin will receive the second half of its ARPA funds — and Evers again will have control over how they are spent.
“That’s something that has been a concern to us, how slow these funds are going out,” state Rep. Mark Born (R-Beaver Dam), co-chair of the Legislature’s Joint Finance Committee, told Empower Wisconsin.
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.
Meanwhile, the Legislative Audit Bureau review also shows Evers had yet to spend the remaining $85 million of the $1.98 billion Coronavirus Relief Fund money the state received in 2020. That money was part of the $2.2 trillion Coronavirus Aid, Relief, and Economic Security (CARES) Act congress passed at the outset of the pandemic, in April 2020. That aid was supposed to have been spent by the end of last year.
“Federal guidance allows the state to record expenditures until September 30, 2022 to meet the deadline for spending funds, which means the state is still in compliance with federal law, even though all funds have not been spent yet,” the Legislative Audit Bureau report states.
Chrisman did not return calls from Empower Wisconsin seeking an update on fund expenditures.
As Evers has dawdled, he hasn’t focused on the “real issues of the day” when it comes to what the federal funds were intended for, Born said.
“Whether that be the latest (COVID surge) and how we can help nursing homes and assisted living communities or the problems we’ve had with the supply chain, there doesn’t seem to be a focus on what the real problems before us are,” the lawmaker said.
Instead, Born 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.
One legislative leadership aide said Evers is treating the billions of dollars at his disposal like a continuous “Publisher’s Clearinghouse” photo-op, holding big checks with his name on them.
At the same time, the Evers administration, school districts and municipal governments are buried in unprecedented amounts of federal cash. They don’t know how to spend it all. In Evers’ case, legislative officials say, the administration has shown once again its incompetence and “failure of leadership” in assessing pandemic-related needs and appropriately administrating funds.
More so, the administration is doing a terrible job in accounting for the federal funding, lawmakers said. When legislators inquire about the status of expenditures, administration officials tell them to “read the press releases.” Even the nonpartisan Legislative Fiscal Bureau is having a hard time getting timely and complete information.
The Joint Legislative Audit Committee has scheduled a hearing today. It’s expected to ask the Audit Bureau to conduct a comprehensive audit into Evers’ handling of the unprecedented amounts of federal aid over the past two years. And the Legislature, sources say, wants better, more accountable tracking moving forward.
“We’re looking at maybe the JFC looking deeper into this as well,” Born said. “We’re not getting answers.”
What auditors find might well surprise even the most ardent Evers defenders.