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Arkansas lawmakers pass over pandemic relief projects, cite lack of priorities

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Arkansas lawmakers pass over pandemic relief projects, cite lack of priorities

Sep 13, 2022 | 8:34 pm ET
By Antoinette Grajeda
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Arkansas lawmakers pass over pandemic relief projects, cite lack of priorities
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Sen. Jonathan Dismang reviews documents during a January budget hearing. Dismang was among several lawmakers who wanted to hold off on approving federal pandemic relief requests on Tuesday. (Photo courtesy of Arkansas Senate)

Arkansas legislators on Tuesday approved just one of seven federal funding requests from state universities and colleges after expressing frustration that the state lacks a plan for appropriating dwindling American Rescue Plan Act funds.

Black River Technical College received approval for $4.6 million in ARPA funds to construct a facility that would provide short-term housing during accelerated training programs, function as an emergency response center during disasters and an overflow hospital during emergencies.

The Arkansas Legislative Council’s Performance Evaluation and Expenditure Review subcommittee passed over nine of 13 ARPA funding proposals, including a request from the Department of Human Services for $60 million to support rural hospitals at risk of permanently closing their doors.

Chairman Sen. Jonathan Dismang (R-Searcy) said committee members have received “haphazard requests” without set priorities.

“We’re in a very difficult position here, and we want to make sure that we’re helping as many Arkansans as possible with these dollars because this is one-time funds,” Dismang said. “It’s not coming back.”

More than $1.5 billion in ARPA funding was allocated to Arkansas, and $867 million remained prior to the ARPA Steering Committee’s Aug. 18 meeting, according to the Arkansas Department of Finance and Administration. A total of $414 million in requests were included in Tuesday’s agenda. 

To better prioritize which requests receive approval, legislators asked DFA officials to provide more information about the different sources of funding available to support these projects. They also requested demographic information to see where the funding has been spent in the state thus far.

ARPA funds can be used to address the negative economic impacts of COVID-19, including providing assistance to small businesses and hard-hit industries, as well as for investments in water, sewer and broadband infrastructure. 

Many of the proposals from Arkansas colleges and universities were aimed at addressing health care needs in the state. Southeast Arkansas College, for example, requested $3 million to support the creation of a new Student and Community Center that would include a walk-in health clinic for students, employees and low-income individuals in the community. 

Philander Smith College, one of the state’s four Historically Black Colleges and Universities, requested $5 million to create Certified Nursing Assistant and Licensed Practical Nurse programs. Officials anticipate graduating 144 CNAs and 40 LPNs annually, helping address the “critical need” for licensed nurses, said Sen. Linda Chesterfield (D-Little Rock).

“We need that across this state but especially in minority communities because there is a dearth of CNAs and there is a dearth of licensed practical nurses,” Chesterfield said. “We’re at the mercy of traveling nurses who can charge as much as $150 an hour…in the past we were able to take nurses for granted, we can’t do that anymore.” 

State Sen. Missy Irvin (R-Mountain View) said she felt “uncomfortable spending money on wish list items” on proposals that are not fully vetted or understood when there are people who “have been in the trenches with COVID.”

“We need to spend money with an intention and a goal and a purpose to move the state forward,” Irvin said. “I don’t know what that is when we piecemeal this stuff together and I’m interested in actually making sure we have a full recovery and we don’t lose anybody along the way that’s been in the trenches dealing with this day in and day out.”   

After four and a half hours of discussion, the subcommittee ultimately approved four ARPA funding requests. 

When Chesterfield, the sole dissenter on the motion to only approve four requests, questioned why Black River’s proposal was more acceptable than the others, Dismang said the requests that weren’t approved were tied to nursing programs and he wants to get a more comprehensive view of what the state needs in terms of nursing and nursing schools.

“Not to say all of these weren’t viable, good projects, but just to make sure that we’re encompassing and having something that considers all the needs of different schools in the state, or at least those that are able to expand, realizing that there is a shortage and need out there,” Dismang said.

In addition to Black River’s request, the subcommittee also approved $5 million to the Department of Human Services to support training and certification of teams employed by behavioral health agencies; $25,000 to DFA to reimburse employees and employers for COVID-19 testing; and $280 million to the Department of Agriculture for water, wastewater and irrigation projects.