During the first meeting of the committee slated to distribute around $1.57 billion in federal funding from the American Rescue Plan, Arkansas’ governor outlined broadband and vaccines as areas to which he would like to see funds allocated sooner rather than later.
The committee met on Wednesday and spent the majority of its time outlining the process for distributing funds. The funding itself is not yet available to the state and must be requested through the U.S. Treasury Department. According to the committee, once the state asks for funding through the act, they will initially receive half of it, around $750 million.
Speaking to the committee, which consists of nine department secretaries and six state legislators, Gov. Asa Hutchinson recommended members consider dividing funding considerations into immediate needs and long-term needs. He said he categorized broadband access as an immediate need.
"That’s something that I believe there’s good unity from the legislature on this priority to the executive branch. We already have the experience of our Rural Connect program that’s set up," Hutchinson said. "Our cities and counties are utilizing that. We put $140 million into it with the provisional CARES Act funding. So it’s all set up, that mechanism, to invest more and I would rather see our investment in broadband out there within a couple months versus within a year."
Hutchinson spoke on vaccinations, which he also saw as an immediate need.
"We are not over the pandemic. We’re not over the community spread of the virus and so we still have to invest. We have to work back. We have to pay attention to it. The most urgent need is vaccinations. And so there very well will be coming to you specific requests for support, for some incentives for vaccination that will help, whether it’s the private sector, the public at large or whether it is the state," Hutchinson said.
Though the state has millions to spend on projects related to the pandemic, Hutchinson also advised the committee to use aid from the private sector when possible and include them on decision making matters.
"So I just encourage you to make sure that the private sector is engaged and utilize them and as we get different requests com[ing] in, that they will be assigned to vet out and part of that vetting process can be our private sector partners," Hutchinson said.
Concerning initial project requests for immediate needs, Hutchinson said he would like the committee to make some of those requests before the June meeting of the Arkansas Legislative Council.
This is the second state committee to distribute federal funds related to the COVID-19 pandemic. The previous committee, which handled funding from the CARES Act, has distributed the majority of the $1.25 billion allotted for the state, though it plans to meet again next month to get updates on how various projects are progressing.
Unlike the CARES Act, the American Rescue Plan has a separate allotment of funding from the Treasury Department directly to the state’s counties and some cities, as opposed to just distributing to states. Each county will also have to apply for said funding through an online portal.
According to Larry Walther, secretary of the Arkansas Department of Finance and Administration and the chair of the new committee, Arkansas’ counties will receive a cumulative total of $586 million, with distribution of funds based on population. Walther said this separate fund means the state will need to be mindful of any requests from counties and stressed a need to collaborate with them.
"I think one of the things I want to do and my people want to do and I’m sure y’all want to do is we don’t pay for the same thing twice and we coordinate our efforts with the cities and counties," Walther said.
Walther said the state has until Dec. 31, 2024 to decide where the new federal funding will go. The deadline to spend all of said funding once allocated is Dec. 31 of 2026.
The committee plans to meet again on June 2. You can watch the full meeting of the committee here.