WyoFile reporter examines large number of federal COVID-19 loans received by officials

You’ve probably heard a number of political candidates complaining about federal spending related to COVID-19. But it turns out that many of those candidates and party officials accepted more than $3.5 million in federal relief grants. WyoFile reporter Maggie Mullen is the author of a story look into the matter.

Bob Beck: Let’s talk a bit about this story. What is it about? And what prompted you to investigate this?

Maggie Mullen: So, first of all, I think it’s worth explaining, this program was the Paycheck Protection Program (PPP) that was created in 2020 by the Trump administration. And that was part of the Cares Act, if people remember, it was the Coronavirus Aid Relief and Economic Security Act. And it was one of the federal government’s largest coronavirus relief programs. And inside of that was this PPP loan program. It was about those forgivable loans that allowed companies to keep their employees on the payroll. And so the story is about this program, but also about the number of lawmakers, candidates, party officials, who have relied on this federal program to ensure their businesses survive the pandemic, while coming out really strong this season of campaign against the federal government and specifically against federal government spending. And that’s really what led me to look at this data on PPP loans, because this program has been over for a while. But I kept hearing over and over again in my own reporting, in these candidate forums and debates, who said that as lawmakers they would reject federal dollars. It was a very hard line that they followed. So, originally, I was planning to do some kind of basic fact-checking on this, like, how practical is a campaign promise? So, I originally planned to do a story about, you know, “That’s the role of federal spending in the state of Wyoming.” That’s how it fits into the state fiscal equation. And part of that involves thinking about how federal dollars have helped the state during the pandemic. And that led me down the path of these PPP loans.

BB: Are there a few highlights of people who may have been more outspoken than others you’ve identified?

MM: Unfortunately, many of these people did not return my calls or emails. They just didn’t want to weigh in on this story. But when it comes to people who have engaged with me, I’ve heard a number of responses. Some of these people have described to me that it was a really difficult decision. That they maintain this political position that federal funding, which they’re against, and that they think the state of Wyoming should really wean off of that, but they’ve been kind of forced into that position because of government restrictions and because of the general economic picture that the pandemic has caused. That they had to rely on those federal loans. I think there were also some, what I would call a little more nuanced of some who say, you know, they may have voted against the spending bill in the Legislature for ARPA, which was the American Rescue Plan Act, which was another pandemic-related federal spending bill. They may have voted against it, but they got PPP loan dollars. And they felt like these two packages were different. I think of a response I heard from a legislator that they really felt like the ARPA spending bill was allowing Wyoming to kick the road, neglecting to address the structural deficit facing the state. So I really encourage people to spend some time with the article because it’s not just about this seeming contradiction, but about the really complicated kind of role that your federal dollars play, not just in the government of the ‘State, but in people’s personal business ventures. It’s more complicated than what we often hear in extremist political campaign talking points.

BB: Has anyone acknowledged, after you mentioned it, that they certainly benefited from some federal funds and that they should perhaps reconsider some of their positions?

MM: I didn’t hear that so much that I really heard that this PPP lending business was really separate from other federal aid, because business owners were forced into it. And I feel like that also explains why it was important to do this story. Because at this time of year, before an election, we really hear so much, I guess, just kind of noise from the campaigns in terms of what they say they’re going to do. And most of the time, a lot of governance is full of compromises and it can be very difficult to maintain those hard lines politically. It’s often a huge practical problem in our current system that we don’t want to make those compromises.

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