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Wisconsin stimulus projects were more like ‘trowel-ready’

By   /   March 28, 2013  /   No Comments

By M.D. Kittle | Wisconsin Reporter

MADISON – So much for “shovel-ready.”

A newly released audit by the Wisconsin Legislative Audit Bureau again shows the biggest piece of federal stimulus funding going to programs and initiatives that literally have nothing to do with rebuilding the nation’s economy.

The audit tracks some $12.9 billion in federal financial assistance administered by state agencies.

Wisconsin took in about $1.1 billion in American Recovery and Reinvestment Act of 2009 funds in fiscal 2012, according to the bureau’s latest State of Wisconsin Single Audit report. More than two-thirds of the stimulus money, or about $1.197 billion, covered enhanced and extended Unemployment Insurance benefits.

ARRA funded $27.4 million in Highway Planning and Construction projects, or about 15 percent of the stimulus allocation to Wisconsin in fiscal ’12.

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BROKEN: Broken shovel-ready. Latest stimulus data again shows much more federal funding went into projects other than ‘shovel-ready’ in Wisconsin.

Unemployment Insurance has made up the biggest single share of the stimulus funding pie in Wisconsin since the money was first doled out to the states.

In fiscal 2010, the second year of ARRA but the first year of so-called shovel-ready projects funding, Highway Planning and Construction received $313 million compared to $1.7 billion in Unemployment Insurance money, according to the audit bureau. Wisconsin also received $324.7 million that year from a one-time State Fiscal Stabilization Fund program under ARRA, part of a total of $53.6 billion the program pumped out nationally. The vast majority of the money was marked for education. The Badger State also picked up $637.2 million in medical assistance stimulus funding in fiscal 2010.

In fiscal 2011, Wisconsin received $234.8 million for shovel-ready projects, and $1.3 billion went to unemployment benefits. Another $671.6 million of the total $2.8 billion in stimulus money was marked for medical assistance initiatives.

Defenders of the $840 billion federal stimulus program argue the cash infusion – the “reinvestment” – was also to help Americans weather the storm of the worst economic crisis in decades. Funding under ARRA was intended to stimulate the economy and create and retain jobs, as well as “support families and workers,” as the audit bureau’s report points out.

But when it all began, President Obama placed a lot of weight on shovel-ready projects that would spur immediate job creation, a plan that would bring unemployment down to 6 percent by 2012. While the national unemployment rate has improved from the dire days of the Great Recession, hovering between 7.7 percent and 7.9 percent, 6 percent would appear out of reach.

The president was forced to admit in 2011 that, “shovel-ready was not as shovel-ready as we expected.”

In his 2012 New York Times column titled, “How not to revive an economy,”  ProPublica reporter Michael Grabell laid out his arguments for the failure of the stimulus to bring about a strong, sustainable recovery. The problem in short: Government.

“Money was spread far and wide rather than dedicated to programs with the most bang for the buck. ‘Shovel-ready’ projects, those that would put people to work right away, took too long to break ground. Investments in worthwhile long-term projects, on the other hand, were often rushed to meet arbitrary deadlines, and the resulting shoddy outcomes tarnished the projects’ image,” he wrote.

Contact M.D. Kittle at mkittle@wisconsinreporter.com

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M.D. Kittle is national First Amendment reporter at Watchdog.org. Contact him at mkittle@watchdog.org.

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