State Treasurer Sarah Godlewski on COVID-19’s economic fallout 

By: - March 19, 2020 1:53 pm
State Treasurer Sarah Godlewski reads to elementary school students in Eau Claire (photo courtesy of the Wisconsin Office of the State Treasurer).

State Treasurer Sarah Godlewski reads to elementary school students in Eau Claire (photo courtesy of the Wisconsin Office of the State Treasurer).

“We can’t wait for the federal government to act,” says State Treasurer Sarah Godlewski. She has just hung up from a call with other state treasurers from around the country to discuss their responses to the economic damage done by the coronavirus pandemic.

Declaring a state of emergency, closing schools, restaurants and bars and banning groups of more than 10 people was  “not an easy decision to make” for Gov. Tony Evers, Godlweski says. While all of these measures are necessary to protect public health, they also have heavy consequences.

“Our role as the chief financial officer is to start looking at how can we be creative with resources that we have available today,” she says. 

She and other state treasurers around the country are trying to find ways of lessening the impact of shutdowns on workers and their employers. So far, Godlewski has been working with the Wisconsin Economic Development Corporation (WEDC) to provide money to small businesses in the form of grants and low-interest loans, as well as seeking new ways to help Wisconsinites who suddenly find themselves out of work.

“I’m getting calls that somebody walked into a restaurant, who was a server, and they were immediately laid off because [the owners] had to shut their doors and they weren’t going to be able to make payroll. And so, that person is now wondering, ‘How am I going to pay my bills?’ But at the same time that business feels awful, because they want to be there for their employees.”

WEDC just announced a $5 million grant program for businesses that have 50 or fewer employees. 

In addition, Godlweski is working on helping businesses get quick access to low-interest loans, “because it’s not going to be helpful if they reach out to the Small Business Administration for a loan, which they can’t deploy for 60 to 90 days. They need that money today.”

While working with WEDC, Godlewski has also been talking to other state treasurers about creating “a one-stop shop for information, where people can go to find these resources.”

“A lot of people think of, for example, the Small Business Administration,” she says,  “But FEMA (the Federal Emergency Management Agency] actually has this community disaster resource program” that can help with infrastructure and public-health needs in a disaster.

The state treasurers on the call  also compared notes on fraud schemes that are popping up around the country to target vulnerable people, falsely claiming that they need to provide their personal information over the phone in order to get help during the pandemic.

Godlewski was a big supporter of the bill passed by Congress that gives workers affected by the coronavirus temporary paid sick leave, boosts unemployment benefits, strengthens government food programs (for children, older people and those with low incomes) and helps states meet expenses for Medicaid. 

What does she make of the opposition to that measure by Sen. Ron Johnson, along with all of Wisconsin’s Republican members of Congress, as well as  Johnson’s comments that paid sick leave will just “incentivize people to not show up for work?”

“What I really think is the number-one priority is not trying to scrutinize Wisconsinites on if they’re going to work or not. We know Wisconsinites want to work. We know Wisconsinites don’t want a handout, but they want resources to be able to live. They want resources to know that they’re not going to get kicked out of their homes, that their utilities aren’t going to get turned off. And so I think it should be less focused on, you know, ‘Are they worthy?’. All Wisconsinites are worthy. They just want the ability to feel secure, and I think that is what we, as elected officials, need to do is to step up and provide that financial security.”

That’s why Evers has made food assistance a priority, she says.  

“I had a family talk to me recently about how their meals for their children were provided through school — their breakfast and lunch. Not having that for their kids put additional strain on their family, so they have to now figure out how they’re going to get childcare and also how they’re going to pay for additional meals that were being covered through school.”

Godlewski supports the idea that has been floated in Congress of direct payments to people adversely affected by the pandemic, to help meet basic needs and stimulate the economy.

“One of the best ways. I think, to help provide security is to provide maybe $1,000 or $2,000 a month — whatever that proposal can be — so they can survive. It’s not a handout, it is providing people the basic resources they need to live.”

That aid should not be going to millionaires, she says, “ it should be focused on the middle class and vulnerable communities … and we know who these people are based on their income taxes.” 

“Something that we learned in 2008 is that when we bailed out huge fortune 100 companies that money didn’t always get down to workers,” she adds.“ It went into paying CEO bonuses.”

“If the government really wants to provide a level of scrutiny . . . it should be looking at these big corporate bailouts.” 

Godlewski sees it as a hopeful sign, that Andrew Yang has been advising the White House on how to implement a guaranteed basic income. The fact that a candidate in the Democratic presidential primary is now advising the Trump administration “shows, at the end of the day, the need to work across the aisle. Because the coronavirus doesn’t care if you’re a Democrat or a Republican.”

Does she see more bipartisanship developing here in Wisconsin?

After a very long pause she answers, “I think people will step up.”

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Ruth Conniff
Ruth Conniff

Ruth Conniff is Editor-in-chief of the Wisconsin Examiner. Conniff is a frequent guest on MSNBC and has appeared on Good Morning America, Democracy Now!, Wisconsin Public Radio, CNN, Fox News and many other radio and television outlets. She has also written for The Nation, The New York Times, The Washington Post, and The Los Angeles Times, among other publications. Her book "Milked: How an American Crisis Brought Together Midwestern Dairy Farmers and Mexican Workers" won the 2022 Studs and Ida Terkel Award from The New Press.