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WyoFile reporter looks at the large number of federal COVID-19 loans received by public officials

An aerial view of the Wyoming House of Representatives
Bob Beck
Wyoming Public Media

You've probably heard a number of political candidates complain about the Federal COVID-19 spending. But it turns out that many of those candidates and party officials accepted over $3.5 million in federal relief subsidies. WyoFile reporter Maggie Mullen authored a story looking into the matter.

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

Maggie Mullen: So first of all, I think it's helpful to explain, this program was the Paycheck Protection Program (PPP) that was established back in 2020 by the Trump Administration. And it was part of the Cares Act, if people will remember, that was the Coronavirus Aid Relief and Economic Security Act. And it was one of the federal government's largest Coronavirus relief programs. And within that was this PPP loan program. They were these forgivable loans for businesses to keep their employees on the payroll. And so the story is about that program, but also the number of lawmakers, of candidates, of party officials, that relied on this federal program for their businesses to survive the pandemic, while also really coming out strong this campaign season against the federal government and specifically against federal government spending. And that's really what led me to even look into this PPP loan data because this program has been over for quite some time. But I just kept hearing over and over again in my own reporting, at these candidate forums and debates from these candidates, who would say that as a lawmaker, they would reject federal dollars. It was a very hard line they were taking. So I had actually originally set out to do just some sort of basic fact checking on that, like, how practical of a campaign promise is that? So I had originally set out to just do a story about, you know, 'This is the role of federal spending in the state of Wyoming. This is how that fits into the state's fiscal equation.' And part of that involves thinking about how federal dollars helped the state out during the pandemic. And that led me down the path of these PPP loans.

BB: Are there a couple of highlights of people who were maybe more outspoken than others that you identified?

MM: Unfortunately, a lot of these folks didn't answer my calls or respond to my emails. They just didn't want to weigh in on this story. But as far as the folks that did engage with me, I heard a number of responses. Some of these folks described to me that it was a really difficult decision. That they stand by this political stance that federal funding, that they're against it, and that they think the state of Wyoming should really sort of wean itself off of that, but that they were sort of, like, forced into this position because of government restrictions and because of just the general economic picture that the pandemic brought on. That they had to rely on these federal loans. I do think there was also some, what I would call a little bit more nuanced from some that say, you know, they may have voted against the spending bill at the legislature for ARPA, which was the American Rescue Plan Act, which was another pandemic related federal spending bill. They may have voted against that, but they received PPP loan dollars. And they felt like those two packages were different. I'm thinking of one response that I heard from a lawmaker that they really felt like the ARPA spending bill allowed Wyoming to sort of kick the can down the road, as far as neglecting to deal with the structural deficit that the state is facing. So I really encourage people to spend time with the piece because it's not just about this apparent contradiction, but the sort of really complicated role that your federal dollars play, not just in state government, but in people's personal business endeavors. It's more complicated than what we often hear in hardline political campaign talking points.

BB: Did anybody acknowledge that, after you brought this up, that they certainly took advantage of some federal money, and maybe they should rethink some of their positions?

MM: I didn't hear that so much as I really just heard that this PPP loan business was really distinct from other federal assistance, because business owners were forced into this. And I feel like that also lends into why it was important to do this story. Because during this time of year, ahead of an election, we really do hear so much, I guess, just sort of noise from campaigns as far as what they say they'll do. And a lot of the time, so much of governing is full of compromise and it can be really difficult to hold those hard lines politically. It's often just a huge practicality in our current system to not be willing to make those compromises.

Bob Beck retired from Wyoming Public Media after serving as News Director of Wyoming Public Radio for 34 years. During his time as News Director WPR has won over 100 national, regional and state news awards.
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