What happened? The Legislative Audit Bureau released its audit of the Public Service Commission’s (PSC) Broadband Grant Program last Friday. The audit focused on two specific grant rounds involving the use of federal funds from two coronavirus relief bills; the Coronavirus Aid, Relief, and Economic Security (CARES) Act and the American Rescue Plan Act (ARPA). The audit identified a few areas of concern:
- The agency did not verify that providers actually constructed the broadband infrastructure they were reimbursed for
- There was no documentation showing the amounts providers actually paid to construct broadband infrastructure
- There were no written program policies for grants funded by the CARES Act and ARPA
- Staff did not retain a record of grant scores and did not follow scoring criteria set within the application instructions
- With $100 million of ARPA funding and out of the 83 grants approved, the Commission approved 79 staff recommendations
Why is it important? Since November of 2021, the PSC has awarded roughly $225 million in grants to internet providers across the state for the purpose of expanding broadband coverage. Accountability is absolutely critical when the government is dealing with such large sums of taxpayer dollars. The audit showed that the agency was careless with its record keeping, didn’t follow-up to verify completion of projects, and passed along dubious recommendations that were rubber-stamped by a majority of commissioners. The Broadband Expansion Grant Program has been one of the legislature’s favorite grant programs, but now some in the legislature are calling for change.
What’s next? The bipartisan infrastructure bill that was passed recently included $65 billion in funding for broadband. That means that Wisconsin will see hundreds of millions of dollars coming into the state in the coming years, specifically for broadband expansion. Based on the results of this audit, the state is not ready to handle that amount of funding if things stay status quo.