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Arkansas executive order further delays ARPA funds distribution

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Arkansas Senate
Sen. Jonathan Dismang reviews documents during a January 2022 budget hearing. Dismang wanted to hold off on approving federal pandemic relief requests on Wednesday following an executive order that abolished the ARPA Steering Committee.

An executive order from Gov. Sarah Huckabee Sanders prompted the withdrawal Wednesday of more than a dozen requests for federal pandemic relief funds that had been pending for months on a legislative panel’s agenda.

The order issued Tuesday by Sanders abolished the ARPA Steering Committee and the Governor’s Infrastructure Planning Advisory Committee. The steering committee’s job had been to review funding requests under the American Rescue Plan Act and sending approved projects to legislators for consideration.

The governor’s order caused confusion about what action, if any, could be taken on ARPA-related items by the Joint Budget Committee’s Performance Evaluation and Expenditure Review subcommittee during its Wednesday meeting.

After some discussion with Department of Finance and Administration officials, lawmakers approved a motion to withdraw 14 requests that had been referred to the Arkansas Legislative Council’s PEER subcommittee from the ARPA Steering Committee. Many of those requests had been held since September when lawmakers expressed frustration that there wasn’t a plan for prioritizing ARPA funds.

To better prioritize the distribution of funds, officials began developing comprehensive plans in four areas — rural hospitals, nursing and allied health programs, domestic violence prevention and behavioral health, which includes mental health and addiction services. Those plans were presented to the ARPA Steering Committee on Dec. 1.

During its Dec. 13 meeting, ALC’s PEER subcommittee approved a motion to refer items held from that agenda to the Joint Budget Committee’s PEER Review subcommittee.

Some of those held items that were withdrawn Wednesday include $3.2 million for an Arkansas Tech University multipurpose facility to expand health education, workforce training and community health monitoring; $5 million for Northwest Technical Institute’s construction of an Allied Health Facility; and $5 million for Philander Smith College to support the creation of nursing programs, expand the school’s community health clinic and expand the campus food pantry’s services to the community.

Broadband delay

The subcommittee on Wednesday also voted to hold a $55 million request from the Arkansas Economic Development Commission for broadband projects.

The U.S. Treasury awarded Arkansas $158 million from ARPA’s Capital Projects Fund. This is separate from the $1.57 billion awarded under the ARPA State and Local Fiscal Recovery Funds program.

While state and local funding may be spent in a variety of authorized categories, CPF money is intended for broadband projects and related administrative expenses. Treasury allocated $150 million for broadband projects and $7.85 million for broadband administrative expenses through 2026.

ALC’s PEER subcommittee approved a request for $93.9 million for broadband projects in December and officials said they anticipated requesting the remaining balance of the CPF funding when the legislative session started in January.

Although CFP funding is separate from the ARPA State and Local Fiscal Recovery Funds program, Sen. Jonathan Dismang (R-Searcy) said Wednesday that it would be best to hold the broadband funding request until receiving clarity from the Sanders administration about the full impact of the governor’s executive order.

“Hit the pause button, make sure we’re doing what we’re supposed to do,” Dismang said. “I fully anticipate that they’ll be funded, but I think that we just want to make sure that there’s enough dialogue between the administration and legislative leadership.”

Legislators approved a motion to pass over the broadband request as well as three Infrastructure Investment and Jobs Act appropriation proposals. A DFA official said these items would be affected by the executive order, but they could move through PEER and the funds wouldn’t be dispersed until the governor approved the projects.

For consistency, Sen. Jimmy Hickey (R-Texarkana) said the items should be held pending more information from the governor. Subcommittee members approved a motion to hold the items.

The three held funding requests from the Arkansas Department of Agriculture include about $80,915 to reimburse rural volunteer fire departments with purchasing hand-held and mobile radios, $1.7 million to support the Gulf Hypoxia Action Plan through implementation of the state’s nutrient reduction strategy, $46,381 for the National Dam Safety Program to provide staff and technical service provider support.

Antoinette Grajeda is a multimedia journalist who has reported since 2007 on a wide range of topics, including politics, health, education, immigration and the arts for NPR affiliates, print publications and digital platforms. A University of Arkansas alumna, she earned a bachelor’s degree in print journalism and a master’s degree in documentary film.