Serving as Stewards of the People’s Money

“The audit reveals serious and significant problems,” State Auditor Janice Mueller reported to our Audit Committee.“including $20 million in improper payments in 2008, budgeting cost overruns and fraud. We have referred the fraud to law enforcement. This is a very troubled program and deserves your attention today.”

Last week the Joint Committee on Audit, on which I serve as the Senate Chair, heard testimony on a state program that provides child care subsidies to low-income Wisconsin families.

Wisconsin Shares, as the program is known, was created in the mid-nineties as part of Wisconsin Works, also called “W2”. The W2 program, which is funded with federal and state dollars, was designed to help low-income families become self-sufficient through work and ‘eliminate welfare as we know it’.

And, to some extent, the program worked. In 1995 Wisconsin had over 100,000 people on welfare. Today we have about 9,000 families who benefit from W2. These families have no entitlement to assistance by rather must follow strict rules on working. They receive program support such as Wisconsin Shares to help maintain their employment.   

Our job, as the Audit Committee, was to determine if the taxpayers’ dollars were being wisely spent. What we learned was disturbing.

Almost 11% of those who benefited from the program were not eligible or lost eligibility (if you lose your job, you lose the child care benefit after two weeks). These problems cost the state between $16 and $18 million in 2008.

County workers, who are the frontline in determining a person’s eligibility for the program, are often so overworked they do not accurately verify the employment of applicants. The audit found in only 4 of 400 documented cases the state database on employment was checked. Not making the proper checks resulted in errors that cost us money.

To me this finding shows how adequately staffing and training the ‘watch dogs’ in the system is a wise investment of state dollars. The ‘income maintenance’ social workers who do this job are paid for by state dollars even though they work at the county. Unfortunately they have been woefully understaffed for quite some time.

During the budget members of the Rural Caucus and I argued for dollars to invest in these workers and we made some progress.

The second problem the audit uncovered related to tracking children’s attendance at child care centers. The audit showed evidence of attendance records fabricated, altered or simply inaccurate. Since child care centers are paid on the attendance records, an accurate count is essential. The state is now moving forward on an automated record keeping system.

Finally the committee discussed what was called ‘program integrity’. The word ‘integrity’ describes how well the program finds fraud, waste and abuse. The audit showed there is currently only one agency staff member assigned to ‘program integrity’. Last February, the Legislature passed a law authorizing five new positions but as of August these positions have not been filled.

These problems and the actions taken to correct them will be reviewed again by the Audit Bureau staff and our Joint Audit Committee.

The role of the Audit Bureau is to track dollars and the effectiveness of programs. Is the program working? At what cost to taxpayers? Are all the rules followed? The work is tedious and detailed. And we don’t have nearly the resources to audit all the programs needing attention.

We are, however, making inroads into finding troubled programs and fixing them. It is a job that will never be completely finished, though, because there is always someone out there trying to figure out how to take advantage of the system.

The work of the nonpartisan Legislative Audit Bureau is a highly respected and invaluable service to state taxpayers. Day after day the auditors are quietly going about their task of tracking state dollars and making sure those dollars are used wisely.

As the state auditor taught me when I became Senate Chair of the Joint Audit Committee, we truly are the “stewards of the people’s money.”