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Weekly Wastebasket: Watchdogging COVID-19 $$$


November 20, 2020

Lollie the Watchdog

One of the many issues Congress must address in the waning months of 2020 is whether to pass another aid package seeking to relieve some of the misery inflicted by COVID-19. The presumptive President-elect, Joe Biden, wants one. Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell (R-KY) has said one is needed. But House Speaker Nancy Pelosi and Treasury Secretary Steve Mnuchin, let alone Mr. McConnell or President Trump, remain far apart on how much money to spend and what restrictions to place on that spending.

Taxpayers for Common Sense is, after all, a budget watchdog group. So you’ll indulge us, we hope, in a curmudgeonly reminder that, nearly eight months since the CARES Act was signed into law, not all the money has been spent. And when you look at the $150 billion Coronavirus Relief Fund, intended to aid states and local governments, some of the money has been spent on programs with dubious value to getting those states back on their feet, economically.

For instance, Oklahoma is spending more than $18.5 million on renovating traveler information centers. Since those funds are being used to make the bathrooms “touchless,” you can stretch your mind to believe this is a potentially valid use of COVID-19 relief funds.

But we can’t say the same for Wyoming spending $15 million to aid petroleum companies in pushing forward with drilling projects previously shut down by the pandemic.

North Dakota had been moving forward with plugging and cleaning up after as many as 380 “orphan” or idle oil wells with pandemic funds. Reducing pollution from abandoned wells is a positive for communities, but bailing out oil and gas companies from their financial responsibilities is bad for taxpayers. The only reason these wells exist is because companies took their profits and ran. Now state officials want to pivot and use about $16 million in COVID-19 relief funds to boost fracking in North Dakota. Surely North Dakota, epicenter of one of the worst increases in COVID-19 cases in the world, could spend that money in ways to fight the pandemic rather than acting as a super spreader for even more abandoned oil and gas wells.

And then we have the problem of states simply not spending the federal funds they received early in the year. For instance, Colorado originally received $1.67 billion in federal COVID-19 relief funding. Of that total, $1.15 billion remains unspent.

Alabama also received just under $1.7 billion. They’ve spent $850 million.

The beat goes on with state after state scrambling to find ways to spend the federal funds, and some money being spent on political priorities rather than programs to improve COVID response. What’s going on here?