Conservatively Speaking

State Senator Mary Lazich (R-New Berlin) represents parts of four counties: Milwaukee, Waukesha, Racine, and Walworth. Her Senate District 28 includes New Berlin, Franklin, Greendale, Hales Corners, Muskego, Waterford, Big Bend, the town of Vernon and parts of Greenfield, East Troy, and Mukwonago. Senator Lazich has been in the Legislature for more than a decade. She considers herself a tireless crusader for lower taxes, reduced spending and smaller government.

Wisconsin failed to learn from food stamp mess

A Milwaukee Journal Sentinel investigation turned up astounding levels of fraud in the Wisconsin Shares program, a taxpayer-funded benefit meant to help needy families afford child care.  The Milwaukee Journal Sentinel  was able to identify nearly $750,000 in suspcious child care disbursements.

Since then, the Legislative Audit Bureau has estimated that fraud and errors cost Wisconsin taxpayers $16.7 million to $18.5 million last year alone.  Problems included lack of documentation, payments during periods of ineligibility, illegal immigrants receiving benefits, and child care rings, with friends and family members paid by the state to take turns caring for each others’ children.

The controversy swirling around the Wisconsin Shares child care program should have been noticed long ago, and should not have happened at all.

During 2003, the Legislative Audit Bureau reported that “Wisconsin’s food stamp benefit payment error rate…has been at an historical high of 4.4 percentage points above the national average.  Since FFY 1993-94, the federal government has imposed a total of $10.6 million in sanctions as a result of Wisconsin’s high error rates.” 

They continued:  “Wisconsin had the third-worst error rate in the nation during these two years (FFY 2000-01 and 2001-02).  Only California and Michigan had higher error rates than Wisconsin.” 

The Legislative Audit Bureau further reported that the Department of Health and Family Services (DHFS) was implementing plans to reduce that error rate, and in fact may have already succeeded in doing so, spending $6.2 million to reduce that error rate. Yet just a few years, and millions spent to eliminate fraud, later the Legislative Audit Bureau reported that prison inmates were improperly receiving food stamp benefits while in prison

Granted, food stamps and Wisconsin Shares are not the same program.  However, until July 1, 2008, they were administered by the same department.  Serious errors happened in the food stamp program, followed by fraud in Wisconsin Shares. 

Where else are errors and fraud happening?  Are these isolated occurrences, affecting only food stamps and child care?  Where there is smoke, there is fire.  State agencies must learn from these two lessons.  Why didn’t the department learn from the food stamp lesson and notice red flags in the child care programs?  Why did it take the Milwaukee Journal Sentinel and Legislative Audit Bureau to expose multi-million dollar fraud and abuse?

 And so here we are after the food stamp debacle, wasting millions of dollars of taxpayer money paying for child care scams.  Rather than learning from the mistakes of the past, our state government became even more lackadaisical. A great deal of light is shining on the Wisconsin Shares program now.  I have little doubt that some improvements will be made. 

The Legislative Audit Bureau has a fraud, waste, and mismanagement hotline that citizens may call.  The number is 1-877-372-8317. 

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