By M.D. Kittle
MADISON — U.S. Rep. Bryan Steil was among the first to raise red flags about Democratic Gov. Tony Evers’ failure to timely distribute federal COVID relief funds. The Janesville Republican’s concerns have only grown over the past two years, especially as a state auditor report shows Evers has been slow to spend most of the $1.5 billion American Rescue Plan Act funds at his disposal.
The bigger problem, Steil said, is the “monstrous amount” of money congress pushed out to the states under the guise of a public emergency that has turned into a cash bonanza for liberal, big government projects.
“We continue to see the vast amount of money the federal government allocated to state and local governments being used in ways that have nothing to do with COVID. This is what I warned about originally,” the congressman told Empower Wisconsin this week.
As of last month, Evers had spent only $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. Evers had yet to spend about $930.7 million.
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 last week.
Lawmakers have accused Evers of sitting on the money, using it like an unregulated re-election campaign war chest.
Steil first raised concerns about Evers’ case of the slows in July 2020, more than three months after congress passed the first CARES Act. Steil asked the governor to clarify why, according to a U.S. Treasury Department report, had just 3.8 percent of the $2 billion been spent. Evers at the time responded that much of the money was marked for programs and that he didn’t want to spend through it before knowing if there would be another round of federal funding. But he was slow to spell out where the money was targeted.
The song remains the same nearly two years later.
The Evers administration finally released an outline of spending last week — after Empower Wisconsin published the auditor’s report and the Legislature’s Joint Audit Committee directed the Legislative Audit Bureau to conduct of comprehensive review of the administration’s handling of the federal funds. To date, the state has made plans to spend $2.8 billion of the aid, with another $1.8 billion total unspent. “Plans” are different than expenditures, and the administration has been anything but detailed in accounting for the actual spending it has done.
The governor this week admitted his administration could have done a better job of responding to COVID-19. He didn’t provide details, but pointed to public health.
“I just wish we would’ve gotten out in front of that and provided more help to counties as it relates to public health,” Evers said at Tuesday’s Wisconsin Counties Association annual meeting. He wouldn’t take reporter questions.
Republicans have criticized many of Evers’ spending decisions, particularly because the governor has locked them out of the process. In vetoing a bill that would have given the Republican-controlled Legislature input in how the federal funds are spent, Evers demurred, insisting his administration could move the money faster.
Wisconsin is one of 31 states that has given its governor and state agencies authority over unanticipated funds, including federal emergency grants and court settlements, without legislative involvement, according to the National Association of State Budget Officers. Republicans are trying to change that through a state constitutional amendment.
Evers has dumped a lot of money into liberal agenda items, including equity and diversity programs and enhanced funding for public schools that shut down in-person learning long after they were advised not to. Part of his $15 million grant to live entertainment venues went to owners and promoters of Madison theaters that had booked a drag queen concert.
Steil said he some heat for voting against the $1.9 trillion ARPA. He worried states and local governments would misspend taxpayer money.
“Now the proof is in the pudding,” the congressman said. “If the money was being thoughtfully used it would have been spent starting more than a year ago making sure schools were open to in-person learning. Instead, we let these funds be used for all kind of politicians’ pet projects.”
The U.S National debt recently topped $30 trillion, according the U.S. Treasury Department, as borrowing amid the pandemic explodes. All of that borrowing has helped drive inflation up to levels not seen in 30-plus years. So, as the federal “relief” floods in, personal income is being devoured by rising inflation.
“Actually there’s so much money it’s hard to spend,” Steil said. “This is a meaningful portion of entire state budgets This is a monstrous amount of money flowing through.”