On Monday, the federal government announced it would distribute $350 billion in COVID-19 relief aid to states and local governments. Wyoming will receive, according to Treasury Department estimates, more than $1 billion. The state’s two largest cities — Cheyenne and Casper — will collect $12.2 million and $9.1 million respectively. Another $47.8 million is likely headed to local governments that serve populations under 50,000 people.
The infusion of aid is not the first for Wyoming. Last year, the state received a relief package amounting to more than $1.25 billion. At a special session in May 2020, the Wyoming Legislature decided how to disperse those dollars, earmarking $300 million for grants for small businesses and nonprofits, $175 million for local governments and millions more for critical infrastructure, an eviction avoidance program and changes to the state’s unemployment insurance program.
Combined, the two aid packages represent more than $2.25 billion in assistance for the Equality State. There’s no question that Wyoming needs relief – we are contending with not only the COVID-19 pandemic, but also a structural downturn in fossil fuels. But it’s important that the funds are spent wisely and transparently — which didn’t always happen during the first round of relief.
To be fair, state leaders have shared some information about how existing relief funding has been used. WyOpen.gov, the state government’s budget transparency website, includes a broad breakdown of how the money has been spent. For example, it shows that 36% of last year’s aid package, or roughly $424 million, went to business relief. We know $48 million was spent on broadband and communications infrastructure, $109 million on testing and contact tracing and $38 million on agriculture relief.
But the details about the spending remain murky. The ledgers contain very broad information, but doesn’t have the specifics that would allow a taxpayer to know whether their dollars were used effectively. And there’s anecdotal evidence to suggest with that much money floating around, some of it wasn’t spent as it was intended. Reporting by the Wyoming Tribune Eagle found that more than 200 businesses were told to return relief aid following third-party audits (the state plans to use that money for other eligible expenses). That’s not to say those audits necessarily found something egregious — some businesses miscalculated their projected losses, for example — but it does suggest that with two relief packages totaling $2.25 billion, it’s important to keep a close eye on the money.
Also consider that relief aid has sometimes been slow to reach those who need the help. Earlier this year, we learned that the Wyoming Community Development Authority had distributed only a fraction of the relief money earmarked for renters and mortgage holders. That problem, officials said, was tied to guidelines that were too restrictive. But regardless of the explanation, the delay meant struggling renters didn’t receive aid as quickly as they could have. Officials need to make sure that guidelines this time are easier to navigate, not just for rental relief, but for the entire aid package.
It’s equally important that state leaders articulate their visions for the money, while also seeking information from the public on how it can most effectively be spent. Yes, there are federal guidelines, but specific relief will be more effective if the decisions involve more than elected officials and administrators.
Finally, we hope some of the relief money is used on infrastructure and capital projects rather than operations. Wyoming has an opportunity to address some long-awaited needs with the relief money, and our leaders would be wise to take advantage. There’s talk now of pursuing a sixth cent tax in Casper to pay for certain capital projects. What about using some of the relief money for those infrastructure needs first?
These questions should not be taken as ingratitude. This relief money will help Wyoming on its recovery. But wise spending and greater transparency will get us there sooner.