State offers new grants to small businesses as Evers vetoes GOP bills to direct relief funds

    Wearing a face mask to prevent the possible spread of the coronavirus, a restaurant server takes orders from customers. (pasja1000 | Pixabay)

    Wisconsin small businesses will share in $420 million in grants to bolster them as they recover from losses brought on by the COVID-19 pandemic under a program that Gov. Tony Evers announced Thursday.

    The funds — in grants of $5,000 each to as many as 84,000 businesses in the state — will come from Wisconsin’s allotment from the federal American Rescue Plan Act (ARPA) enacted in March. 

    The grants will be focused on businesses in industries that were most affected by the pandemic and administered by the Wisconsin Department of Revenue (DOR) in consultation with the Wisconsin Economic Development Corporation (WEDC). 

    The agencies are waiting for final guidance from the U.S. Treasury on how the ARPA funds can be spent before completing details of the program. But the Evers administration intends to draw on a recent WEDC report that ties economic development to improving the economic well-being of residents and communities in the state.

    DOR has established a web portal with information about the program, called Wisconsin Tomorrow Small Business Recovery  Grants. The portal is to be updated with more information as state officials receive it from the federal government.

    In addition to announcing the grant program — part of $600 million in small business support that Evers has promised from the ARPA funds — the governor, as expected, vetoed 11 bills Thursday that Republicans in the state Legislature passed to direct how the state’s share of the $3.2 million ARPA funds would be spent.

    Among the bills was one that would have spent nearly $1.1 billion to pay all property owners a sum equal to 10% of their total tax bill. Evers said such payments would “almost certainly” violate an ARPA provision that bars tax rebates. In addition, he wrote in his veto message, the bill offered no relief to renters and “makes no effort to link payments to impacts of the pandemic.”

    Another vetoed bill would have directed $200 million to small businesses in the state — less than half the amount that Evers announced Thursday he plans to send to the new grant program, and one third of the total amount that the governor has said he will spend on small business aid through ARPA.

    Besides being too small, Evers said, it would slow down the state’s ability to direct the funds by subjecting the plan to a review by the Legislature’s Joint Finance Committee before it could be implemented. State law, Evers wrote in his message, already gives the governor oversight in the spending of federal funds.  

    In a joint statement late Thursday, Republican leaders in the state Assembly, Senate and Joint Finance Committee criticized the veto, complaining that Evers had “rejected the opportunity to work with legislators on even a basic spending plan,” in the words of Senate Majority Leader Devin LeMehieu (R-Oostburg). 

    Assembly Speaker Robin Vos (R-Rochester) dismissed the outline Evers announced previously for his plans for the funds as “vague promises in a press release.”

    A small business advocacy group welcomed Evers’ announcement.

    “These new grants will be a shot in the arm for small businesses from Bayfield to Appleton to Milwaukee and beyond,” said Shawn Phetteplace, Wisconsin state manager for Main Street Alliance. “There is still more work to do,” however, he said, adding that “the recovery from this pandemic will take years, not months.”

    Senior Reporter Erik Gunn reports and writes on work and the economy, along with related subjects, for the Wisconsin Examiner. He spent 24 years as a freelance writer for Milwaukee Magazine, Isthmus, The Progressive, BNA Inc., and other publications, winning awards for investigative reporting, feature writing, beat coverage, business writing, and commentary. An East Coast native, he previously covered labor for The Milwaukee Journal after reporting for newspapers in upstate New York and northern Illinois. He's a graduate of Beloit College (English Comp.) and the Columbia School of Journalism. Off hours he is the Examiner's resident Springsteen and Jackson Browne fanboy and model railroad nerd.