How well did Colorado spend $66 billion in pandemic aid?

When the pandemic hit, President Donald Trump in conjunction with a bipartisan cadre of governors across the nation, made the tough decision to shut down the economy to save lives.

But the choice wasn’t between economic ruin and hospitals turning away dying patients because for a brief shining moment, America’s leaders came together in a bipartisan way and approved billions in federal aid.

That aid did demonstrable good. The country has recovered faster than its previous two recessions, Americans kept their homes and many came out from the shutdown without facing financial ruin; many were even ahead financially.

However, there were drawbacks to rushing out billions in aid (similar to the drawbacks seen with President Barack Obama’s American Recovery Act), and The Denver Post’s reporters have chronicled the pitfalls in a first-of-its-kind investigation. The Big Payout tracked more than 367,000 loans, grants, and awards from multiple federal agencies to Colorado businesses and homes.

There is so much to learn from the investigation. — fraud, questionable spending, uneven allocation per capita. Our federal, state, and local elected representatives should take note because economic stimulus will likely be needed again either for the state or the country. We can do better.

The Denver Post found that Colorado received $66 billion.

Coloradans should be outraged that mountain communities, many of them made wealthy by both residents’ income and tourist dollars, received more of that federal aid per capita than rural communities that are by all accounts poorer and without strong tourism draws.

The investigation, led by The Denver Post’s Also Svaldi, found that Pitkin County received 5.5 times more money per resident than Crowley County. In one regard, the disparity makes sense. Resort towns have many more restaurants than similar-sized communities to serve the influx of tourists. But, The Post, also chronicled how “money attracts money.” The loans offered by the federal government were processed by bankers, and Pitkin County has more financial institutions than its size would otherwise require because of all the wealth accumulated there.

In the future, the state should prioritize ensuring that rural and economically disadvantaged communities have access to the financial tools needed to get their fair share of aid.

The Post found that fraud was common among aid programs, especially unemployment insurance claims and the Paycheck Protection Program. Unfortunately, most of that money is gone forever, but we hope the state’s efforts to track down fraudsters and make them pay will bring some resolution for American taxpayers.

Wisely, Rep. Matt Gray, Rep. Mike Weissman and Sen. Faith Winter brought a bill to the General Assembly this year that will encourage whistleblowers to bring forward evidence of fraud. The False Claims Act will both increase penalties for people caught scamming the system, and increase incentives for Coloradans who know about fraud to tell authorities.

For example, The Post found that in Colorado, “6.4% of PPP loans, more than 12,300 in total, were issued to businesses that were two years old or newer.” Another 5% percent of Paycheck Protection Program awards went to companies that didn’t list how long their businesses had been operating. Coloradans who know of shell businesses filing for PPP for non-existent employees would be wise to take lawmakers up on their offer of whistleblower protection.

On the side of government spending, we are encouraged that The Post found reasonable plans for quickly getting taxpayer dollars into the economy, although we share in outrage that the Associated Press chronicled at some of the pet-projects that slipped through, including irrigation systems for golf courses in Colorado Springs.

In short, America’s taxpayers will be paying off this aid for decades to come, and much of the burden will fall on the next generation. It’s important that states recover the misspent funds they can and work to do better next time.

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