Sen. Jonathan Dismang (R-Searcy) listening to testimony during the Arkansas Legislative Council meeting on Apr. 22, 2022. (Photo courtesy of the Arkansas Senate)
A legislative subcommittee on Tuesday approved $113.9 million in federal COVID relief funds to upgrade the state’s court management system and support broadband projects.
The Arkansas Administrative Office of the Courts will use $20 million in American Rescue Plan Act dollars to accelerate development of a new system to replace its outdated one over the next three years.
The current case management vendor, Avenu Insights, has been unable to provide “a viable modernization path,” so AOC has been building its own statewide management system for the last two years, according to a press release.
“This funding will be revolutionary in our ability to improve the public’s support and confidence in the Arkansas judiciary through the use of modern technology designed and built for Arkansas courts,” AOC Director Marty Sullivan said in a statement.
“Our expectation is that it will have a profound impact on the efficiency of the courts and result in increased public safety through better enforcement of court orders.”
A committee that developed the first long-term strategic plan for the state’s judiciary in 2018 recommended embracing technology. This became more urgent during the pandemic as courts began relying more heavily on technology and remote proceedings.
ARPA funding can be used to address the negative economic impacts of COVID-19, including providing assistance to small business and hard-hit industries, as well as for investments in water, sewer and broadband infrastructure.
AOC began its Court Automation Program in 2001 with funding from highway safety funds. It was a modern court solution at the time, but the technologies supporting the current CourtConnect systems have reached their limits, according to officials.
An updated system could support services like sending text message reminders of court dates and payment due dates. It would also provide an opportunity to create greater protection against cyber attacks.
Although the system has never been breached, Sullivan said Tuesday he’s had “many sleepless nights because we’re constantly being attacked by foreign actors.” With more than 1.2 million cases processed in Arkansas courts each year, the management system holds sensitive records for many Arkansans.
“We’re keeping that secure and, knock on wood, we’ve done a really good job with that,” he said. “The problem here is these legacy-based systems that we have are over 20 years old and they’re failing.”
Upgrading the system will also save money over time, according to court officials. AOC pays $1 million annually in service contracts to maintain its current system. Once the new system is built, AOC will own it outright and that $1 million can be reinvested in constant improvements, Sullivan said.
In addition to AOC’s request, the Arkansas Legislative Council’s Performance Evaluation and Expenditure Review subcommittee also approved the allocation of $93.9 million in ARPA funds to 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. The U.S. Treasury allocated $150 million for broadband projects and $7.85 million for broadband administrative expenses through 2026.
CPF broadband projects will be subject to the terms of the Arkansas Rural Connect program, which funds broadband infrastructure projects in unserved or underserved areas of the state.
The original request of $135.8 million for 20 projects was revised to $93.9 million for 14 projects after receiving feedback over the last week, state Broadband Director Glen Howie said. Six proposals were pulled for a more thorough review, but officials anticipate seeking approval for those projects and the remaining balance of the CPF funding when the legislative session starts in January.
Additionally, money for broadband projects will be available in 2023 through the Infrastructure Investment and Jobs Act, passed by Congress in November 2021, officials said. Arkansas is receiving more than $5.8 million through the legislation.
Lawmakers voted Tuesday to pass over the Department of Finance and Administration’s request for $9.9 million in ARPA funds to support a statewide Domestic Violence Plan.
The plan proposes using ARPA funds to restore disbursement levels to Victims of Crime Act (VOCA) beneficiaries to 2019 and 2020 levels. A decrease of $4.2 million in VOCA funding occurred between 2020 and 2021.
To address the funding reduction, DFA requested $8.4 million over the next two years in proportion with the entity’s funding compared to total VOCA funding. Tuesday’s request for $4.2 million covered fiscal 2023 only.
The plan aims to support Arkansas recipients in the short term in hopes the VOCA Fix to Sustain the Crime Victims Fund Act of 2021 will eventually restore recipients’ funding to pre-pandemic levels.
The Domestic Violence Plan also included a revised funding proposal from the Women & Children First Family Peace Center in Central Arkansas. The organization reduced its original request of $9.5 million to $5.7 million for construction of a new facility.
The Women & Children First’s funding request is part of a group of proposals that has been held since September when PEER subcommittee members expressed frustration that there wasn’t a plan for prioritizing dwindling ARPA funds.
Of the $1.57 billion awarded under the ARPA State and Local Fiscal Recovery Funds program, nearly $401 million remained as of Nov. 30, according to DFA.
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.
The Department of Human Services requested $30 million for a substance abuse prevention plan Tuesday. It was part of a supplemental agenda that included a $6.25 million request by the Sevier County Medical Center to lease and purchase medical equipment for its new facility.
Two thirds of the subcommittee voted to hear items from a supplemental agenda on Tuesday despite committee chair Sen. Jonathan Dismang (R-Searcy) and Sen. Missy Irvin (R-Mountain View) speaking against it.
“We’ve asked and begged and pleaded to understand how things are being prioritized,” Dismang said. “You just heard about a hospital that’s had something held for two months without consideration and it made its way to a supplemental agenda just a few hours before our meeting.”
“That doesn’t make any sense to me,” he said. “That tells me that the process has been broken, it’s been broken for a while. We’ve tried to talk about that in this committee and nothing’s really ever changed.”
The PEER subcommittee approved the medical center’s request and voted to hold DHS’ request for the next agenda. Legislators also approved a motion to refer items held from today’s agenda to the Joint Budget Committee’s PEER Review subcommittee.
The Arkansas Legislative Council will meet Friday and consider giving final approval to items passed at Tuesday’s meeting.
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