Arkansas legislative panel finds state struggles in prioritizing COVID relief aid requests

Prioritizing projects to receive COVID-19 relief money in a way that is accountable to taxpayers has proven challenging, a legislative panel has found.

Lawmakers on the Performance Evaluation and Expenditure Review (PEER) Subcommittee of the Arkansas Legislative Council reviewed $414.4 million in requests for American Rescue Plan Act (ARPA) funding, according to Department of Finance and Administration Chief of Staff Alan McVey. The state currently has $867.4 million remaining to allocate, McVey said Tuesday.

Funding requests ranged from health programs, to various construction projects, among other things.

“For me, prioritization is the biggest concern,” said Sen. Jonathan Dismang, R-Beebe, who chairs the council. “At the best I can tell right now we’re probably in a first-come-first-serve basis for project requests that are coming through the Steering Committee. I don’t know how else to describe how things are coming before us.”

He added it was concerning the money could run out, leaving other worthy projects unfunded.

While picking through the requests, lawmakers expressed frustration over a lack of specific criteria and goals to guide the proposals. One project by the University of Arkansas at Pine Bluff drew questions in particular over its plan to build a student engagement center that would include a wellness center as well as a game room and 1,200 seat theater.

“I understand that this technically would meet the criteria but it looks like so long as there’s a healthcare hook then we can kind of do whatever we would like to do,” said Missy Irvin, R-Mountain View.

Representatives for the university clarified the $3 million they were requesting would be used specifically for a 5,500 square feet area tied to the wellness center and that other funds have been identified for the theater and game room. The total cost for the university’s planned student engagement center is $35 million, the representatives said.

Irvin also criticized the lack of information in some of the funding requests. Some proposals were one-page summaries, while others were 14 pages long.

“These folks have gone to great detail about how many people that they’re educating, how much they’re going to be spending in this area, this area, this area for an achievable goal of meeting a need. Whereas some of these don’t have any details of that. They may have it but we don’t have it in front of us. Again, I think that those things are important,” Irvin said.

She went on to say setting up criteria for proposals and how funds should be spent would help provide transparency to taxpayers and a way to track that COVID-19 relief money was being spent the way it was intended.

“I don’t think the ARPA Committee vets very well,” Sen. Terry Rice, R-Waldron, said of the requests. “That’s just me. I’m not condemning anybody else. You spend your time and you work at it. That’s what we’re doing right now. We’re vetting. We’re spending our time working on this. It’s not an accusation against any agency or institution, but that’s our job. To make sure tax money is spent correctly and maybe to get the biggest bang for the buck. That’s what our interest is.”

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