Arkansas panel OKs $34.8 million in federal relief funds, but again delays other requests

Lawmakers still waiting for reports on priority needs

Sen. Linda Chesterfield attends a meeting inside the Arkansas Capitol in June 2021. (Photo courtesy of the Arkansas Senate)

An Arkansas Legislative Council subcommittee on Tuesday approved requests for $34.8 million in American Rescue Plan Act funding while again delaying action on more than a dozen proposals that have been held since September. 

During a Sept. 13 meeting, Performance Evaluation and Expenditure Review subcommittee members expressed frustration that there wasn’t a plan for prioritizing the appropriation of dwindling ARPA funds. As a result, lawmakers held funding proposals while officials examined statewide needs to better prioritize which requests receive approval.

On Sept. 16, the Arkansas Legislative Council approved a request from the state Department of Human Services for up to $6 million in ARPA funding to support a Camden hospital at risk of closing. It was part of a larger request for $60 million. The ALC also sent three of four committee-approved projects back to PEER.

Arkansas was allocated $1.57 billion in ARPA funding, and more than $861 million remained as of Oct. 31, according to the Department of Finance and Administration.

The money 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. 

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Officials are developing comprehensive plans that look at four areas, including nursing, but PEER chairman Sen. Jonathan Dismang (R-Searcy) said no new information had been received as of Tuesday’s meeting. 

Sen. Linda Chesterfield (D-Little Rock) questioned why the process is taking so long.

DFA’s Andy Babbitt said the Arkansas Department of Health is working with the Arkansas Hospital Association to conduct research and he expects findings will be available in early December.

Officials are developing an in-depth plan that will address immediate needs while also examining what will be needed in the future in order to prevent the over-expansion of programs, Babbitt said.

Some of the held over proposals are 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.  

Arkansas Tech University’s request for $2 million, half of which will support emergency financial aid grants to students, was among the ARPA funding requests approved Tuesday. 

The subcommittee also approved $3.6 million for the University of Arkansas for Medical Sciences Institute of Digital Health and Innovation to review broadband applications and recommend for awards, and $26.9 million to the Arkansas Development Finance Authority to support credit and investment programs for small businesses and startups. 

Final approval for appropriation requests approved by PEER Tuesday must be given by the Arkansas Legislative Council, which meets Friday.

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Antoinette Grajeda, Arkansas Advocate
Antoinette Grajeda, Arkansas Advocate

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.

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