Arkansas Legislative Council approves rural hospital aid, court system funds

Several pending requests frustrate legislators, raise questions about transparency and fairness

By: - December 16, 2022 7:30 pm
Arkansas state Rep. Michelle Gray (R-Melbourne) talks with another House member during a meeting of the Arkansas Legislative Council Friday morning, Dec. 16, 2022, in the Big MAC Building on the grounds of the state Capitol.(Photo by John Sykes/Arkansas Advocate-12.16.2022)

Arkansas state Rep. Michelle Gray (R-Melbourne) talks with another House member during a meeting of the Arkansas Legislative Council Friday morning, Dec. 16, 2022, in the Big MAC Building on the grounds of the state Capitol.(Photo by John Sykes/Arkansas Advocate-12.16.2022)

Arkansas legislators gave final approval on Friday for a new Southwest Arkansas hospital to receive $6.25 million in federal relief funds and voted down an attempt to take up several more federal aid requests.

The Arkansas Legislative Council’s Performance Evaluation and Expenditure Review subcommittee green-lit the American Rescue Plan Act funds for Sevier County Medical Center on Tuesday. The hospital is the second in the state to receive ARPA funds from the Legislature after Ouachita County Medical Center in Camden received $6 million in September.

The Legislative Council approved two other ARPA requests Friday. The state Administrative Office of the Courts received $20 million to help pay for a new case management system, and the Department of Commerce received nearly $93.9 million for 14 rural broadband projects.

The full Legislative Council passed the hospital appropriation through a voice vote, with no audible dissenters, to adopt PEER’s report from its Tuesday meeting.

Friday’s vote came after some legislators revisited a debate from Tuesday about the process by which ARPA funding requests come before the Legislature.

Concern over priorities

PEER House chair Rep. Michelle Gray (R-Melbourne) moved to adopt her subcommittee’s report at Friday’s ALC meeting, but State Sen. Linda Chesterfield (D-Little Rock) offered a substitute motion to “accept” all 17 funding requests that PEER referred to the budget committee.

State Sen. Linda Chesterfield (D-Little Rock) questions a speaker during a meeting of the Arkansas Legislative Council Friday, Dec. 16, 2022, in the Big MAC Building on the grounds of the state Capitol. (John Sykes/Arkansas Advocate-12.16.2022)
State Sen. Linda Chesterfield (D-Little Rock) questions a speaker during a meeting of the Arkansas Legislative Council Friday, Dec. 16, 2022, in the Big MAC Building on the grounds of the state Capitol. (John Sykes/Arkansas Advocate-12.16.2022)

The postponed items included 14 that had been recommended by the state ARPA Steering Committe. Among them were at least four specifically health care-related projects, seven from state universities or colleges and two from the Game and Fish Commission. The requests totaled more than $115 million.

​​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.

The Sevier County hospital appropriation was one of three requests not meant to be held for the Joint Budget subcommittee.

Frustration with the process

Chesterfield said she believed the requests should already have been approved.

“It seems to me that the individuals who have made these requests have been vetted and that their needs are great,” she said.

But Sen. Missy Irvin (R-Mountain View) reiterated her past statements that the apparent lack of transparency in how requests come before legislators feels like choosing “winners and losers.”

“If you vote for this, you’re endorsing the old GIF grant program,” Irvin said, referring to the state General Improvement Fund that used to aid specific projects in specific districts.

In 2018, six now-former state legislators, a consultant, a private college president and 11 now-former health care executives or lobbyists were convicted of financial crimes after misusing GIF grant money. The GIF program ran smoothly and with more supervision by the end of 2020, the Arkansas Democrat-Gazette reported.

Sen. Jonathan Dismang (R-Searcy), PEER’s Senate chair, also compared the ARPA request prioritization process to the GIF program on Tuesday. Dismang was not present at Friday’s meeting.

In an interview later on Friday, Dismang clarified that he did not suspect misconduct in the way ARPA requests move through the state Department of Finance and Administration or the Legislature and its committees. He said the GIF program was “not good policy” and “had been misused.”

“Done properly, I don’t think there’s anything wrong with getting funds to projects that need to be funded,” Dismang said. “You just need to make sure that we’ve got the correct process for how that happens.”

Dismang and Irvin both said on Tuesday that the ARPA request process did not have enough of a statewide focus.

Sen. Joyce Elliott (D-Little Rock) said Friday that continuously holding ARPA funding requests instead of voting for or against them is “so incredibly unfair” to those who have done their part to get the financial help they seek.

State Sen. Joyce Elliott (D-Little Rock) eyes a speaker during a meeting of the Arkansas Legislative Council Friday, Dec. 16, 2022, in the Big Mac Building on the grounds of the state Capitol. (John Sykes/Arkansas Advocate-12.16.2022)
State Sen. Joyce Elliott (D-Little Rock) eyes a speaker during a meeting of the Arkansas Legislative Council Friday, Dec. 16, 2022, in the Big Mac Building on the grounds of the state Capitol. (John Sykes/Arkansas Advocate-12.16.2022)

“I don’t really know at what point we can continue to engender people believing in our process when we continue to keep people on the agenda and string them along,” Elliott said.

Chesterfield said she wanted the council to vote yes or no on whether the requests would be fulfilled “instead of sitting around pretending we’re going to do something different at a later time.”

She also reminded the council that ARPA funds are meant to help underserved communities.

“Looking at the monies that have been distributed over the state, I have not seen that that is the heart of the decisions that we’ve made,” Chesterfield said.

Uses of approved funds

Chesterfield’s motion failed on a divided voice vote. The House members on the Legislative Council voted in favor, but the Senate members voted against. A roll call to clarify the results showed a 10-9 Senate vote against the motion.

If the motion had passed, it would not have approved the $6.25 million for Sevier County Medical Center, and a separate motion would have been necessary.

Sevier County has been without a hospital since 2019, after the De Queen facility closed when its out-of-state owner was charged with Medicaid fraud. Voters in the county later approved a half-cent sales tax for a $24 million bond issue to pay for construction of a new hospital just north of De Queen.

The $6.25 million award will pay for the new hospital’s equipment and furnishings in several departments, according to the appropriation request presented Tuesday. The hospital will open this month regardless of its funding source, but its other option would have been to take out a loan, hospital officials said Tuesday.

Senate Minority Leader Keith Ingram (D-West Memphis), who serves on the ARPA steering committee, said he hopes the Legislature and the incoming administration use the remaining ARPA funds to support health care next year.

“One thing that cuts across every district in this state is health care, and I would urge this group to take a look at prioritizing how we begin a program to make our population as healthy as we possibly can,” Ingram said.

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Tess Vrbin
Tess Vrbin

Tess Vrbin came to the Advocate from the Arkansas Democrat-Gazette, where she reported on low-income housing and tenants' rights, and won awards for her coverage of 2021 flooding and tornado damage in rural Arkansas. She previously covered local government for The Commercial Dispatch in Mississippi and state government for the Columbia Daily Tribune in Missouri. A Midwesterner by birth, she graduated from the University of Missouri's journalism school in 2019.

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