Wisconsin Has a Lot of Federal COVID Money on the Table, Much of It Not Properly Documented

As Gov. Tony Evers prepares to introduce his next biennial budget proposal, his administration can’t say how they have allocated a significant portion of the federal COVID aid Evers has nearly complete control over.

And as the governor calls for billions more in education spending, a new report shows there’s a massive amount of federal education aid the state has yet to approve for spending.

Evers on Wednesday is set to unveil his two-year budget proposal, what promises to be a massive grow government spending plan that will grab much of the state’s projected $7.1 billion surplus. Some budget watchers say it’s possible the Democrat’s spending blue print could push the Badger State budget over $100 billion for the first time. The Republican-controlled Legislature, however, looks to build their own budget plan again, taking an ax to Evers’ long list of spending proposals.

Evers has called for at least $2 billion more in K-12 education funding. 

“We have to do this if we finally want to make a difference for kids,” Evers said in September while campaigning for re-election. “We have to do this. … This is an opportunity of a lifetime.”

But lawmakers would be wise to ask about the plans for hundreds of millions of dollars in federal COVID aid for education the state’s Department of Public Instruction has yet to approve.

According to a new transparency report by the Institute for Reforming Government, DPI, as of late January, had only approved one-third (34%) of the $1.49 billion allocated to the state’s public schools. The funding comes from the Elementary and Secondary School Emergency Relief (ESSER) Fund III, passed by Congress as part of the $1.9 trillion American Rescue Plan Act. Wisconsin school districts also received $174 million in the first round of ESSER money, and $686 million from ESSER Fund III.

Districts must allocate funding by September 30, 2024, and draft budgets for the final ESSER year by June of this year. It’s safe to say, DPI is lagging far behind. Some $985 million remains inactive, yet to be approved by DPI as Evers prepares to drop billions of dollars more into his education budget, the Institute for Reforming Government (IRG) notes.

The report found:

Milwaukee has 0.0% approved by DPI despite accounting for $505 million of Wisconsin’s total funding. Madison has 1.2% approved, Waukesha 1.8%, Beloit 2.3%, Eau Claire 11.6%, and Green Bay 24.2%.

In his State of the State address last month, Evers pitched making permanent the one-time $270 million, federally funded program to develop mental health programs.

“We cannot overstate the profound impact that the past few years have had on our kids in many ways — and that includes their mental health,” the governor said.

Quinton Klabon, IRG’s Senior Research Director, doesn’t doubt the mental health concerns. He’s seen it first-hand as a school volunteer.

“But it’s surprising that school districts, for whatever reason, have not allocated more money in this direction,” he said. “It seems money is not the issue.”

What is a significant issue, Klabon said, is the lack of transparency in DPI’s tracking of the ESSER funds and the allocations. That’s why IRG came up with its own Transparency Tool, a database to help taxpayers, parents, anyone track where the money is going — or where it isn’t going.

Klabon said Wisconsin governments don’t seem to have the same urgency in tracking COVID relief funds as they did in tracking COVID.

“It is surprising that we were way on top of tracking people getting sick and quarantined, which is important, but not where the $1.49 billion is,” the researcher said.

There seems to be a lot of that going around in state government.

As the Badger Institute’s Mark Lisheron reported this week, the public is unlikely to ever know how the state Department of Administration came to decide how to allocate and spend nearly $4 billion from three federal pandemic emergency spending bills.

At a Joint Legislative Audit Committee hearing, DOA leaders acknowledged many of the decisions about how to allocate money to state agencies and local governments were made in phone conversations and emails with Evers and his staff that were not documented, Lisheron reported.

As the Badger Institute reported:

There is no documented rationale for how much agencies would be granted or why they were granted those amounts. How the money has been spent is also often impossible to decipher given the lack of tracking or records.

The absence of recordkeeping was first discovered in early June during an audit by the Legislative Audit Bureau. In its report, issued in December, the bureau said DOA and the Evers administration provided to them anecdotal and undocumented information about how the state and its agencies intended to spend the emergency funds provided through the CARES Act, American Rescue Plan Act and the Investment and Jobs Act.

Kathy Blumenfeld, DOA’s secretary designee, told the committee the department intended to comply with the audit’s recommendation to document the decision-making for the additional roughly $1.8 billion the state has yet to allocate or spend.

State Sen. Devin LeMahieu, R-Oostburg, has filed open records requests with DOA for any documentation not already provided to auditors pertaining to emergency spending decisions, she said.

Assembly Speaker Robin Vos (R-Rochester) has said Republicans refuse to grow government, and they won’t spend on Evers’ “liberal wish list.”

Republican lawmakers have urged the governor to spend the unprecedented federal aid he controls before he comes asking for more state taxpayer money.

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M.D. Kittle is the National Political Editor for The Star News Network.
Photo “Tony Evers” by Tony Evers. Background Photo “Wisconsin Statehouse” by F McGady. CC BY-SA 4.0.


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