A proposal to provide $100 million more in federal coronavirus relief funds to the Arkansas Rural Connect broadband grant program won the backing Wednesday of a panel appointed by the governor.
The 15-member federal Coronavirus Aid, Relief and Economic Security Act steering committee was created by Gov. Asa Hutchinson to recommend the best uses of $1.25 billion in federal pandemic relief funds.
The broadband program at the Department of Commerce previously received $19.3 million in federal coronavirus relief funds recommended by the committee nearly two months ago. The program received $5.7 million in state funds last year, before the pandemic.
The steering committee also endorsed a proposal to provide $8.77 million in federal coronavirus funds to reimburse enhanced immunization initiatives at private primary care practices and another proposal to provide $5 million to create a cost-sharing program to help Arkansas meat-processing facilities expand their capacity to meet increased demand linked to the pandemic.
Both Senate President Pro Tempore Jim Hendren, R-Sulphur Springs, and House Speaker Matthew Shepherd, R-El Dorado, signaled their support for the $100 million request in letters dated Wednesday to steering committee Chairwoman Elizabeth Smith, who is secretary of the state Department of Inspector General.
"I have heard from numerous colleagues in the Senate who believe providing broadband to underserved areas of the state must be a priority during this pandemic," Hendren wrote.
Thus far, the Arkansas Rural Connect program has awarded four broadband grants totaling about $6 million to serve Fairfield Bay, Lonoke, Nashville and Ozark, said committee member Mike Preston, who also is the state's commerce secretary.
"What we realized real quickly was that $19.3 [million] or even $25 million doesn't go very far," Preston told the steering committee. "One hundred million dollars probably still doesn't get us all the way there, but it's going to get us a lot further than we are at this point."
"This is a request to beef up this program," Preston said. "If you don't have broadband access ... you are not going to be able to do distance education or telemedicine or all the things that we have come to understand in the way of life that we have been able to become accustomed to under this pandemic."
The Rural Connect program will run into challenges spending the federal funds by the end of this calendar year, "but all indications [are] that we are going to get an extension from Congress on the ability to spend these funds going into next calendar year," he said.
A committee member, state Sen. Missy Irvin, R-Mountain View, said there is an opportunity to use the Rural Broadband I.D. grant program at the University of Arkansas for Medical Sciences or incorporate that program into Arkansas Rural Connect program.
"I really think there is more room to explore utilizing that, so we can have a comprehensive approach on how we can solve this problem," she said. "I think this is a good step in the right direction, but I believe more work should be done to maximize those opportunities for telemedicine but also for the education components."
The steering committee approved $2.3 million for the Rural Broadband I.D. grant program in June.
Another committee member, state Sen. Will Bond, D-Little Rock, said he wants state officials to assure him there are enough leftover federal coronavirus relief funds for quick-turnaround testing and tracing, access to personal protective equipment, and possibly paid leave for teachers.
Smith said Hutchinson has talked in recent days about providing point-of-care testing that will be available for teachers and students at schools.
Committee member Larry Walther, secretary of the state Department of Finance and Administration, said the steering committee previously approved the state Department of Health's request for $58 million for laboratory testing, supplies, contact tracing and information technology equipment and that "my understanding is they have spent only about $2.5 million of that."
Committee member Johnny Key, secretary of the state Department of Education, told the steering committee that "the governor asked us to put together a proposal that we could bring to you all to create a fund for emergency covid-19 relief for school employees."
"We are still working out the details on that," he said.
"It will be a leave up to two weeks or 10 days for teachers, or school employees that are either because of a positive test or a close contact have to quarantine or isolate and cannot be involved in their job from home," Key said. Afterward, he said the estimated cost of the proposal is $20 million.
Key said that Hutchinson has heard from many teachers who have asked what happens if they have to quarantine or be in isolation due to a positive covid-19 test or if they are identified as a close contact.
"You don't get a lot of personal leave, especially in your first few years as an educator. And especially if you have young families, that leave goes pretty quick," he said.
The steering committee also endorsed the state Department of Human Services' request submitted in partnership with the Arkansas chapter of the Arkansas Academy of Pediatrics for $8.77 million.
Cindy Gillespie, human services secretary, said this proposal would allow pediatricians to be reimbursed for their stepped-up efforts to vaccinate children.
The maximum reimbursement for each primary care practice would be $30 per Medicaid ARKids A- or B-attributed child, up to the cost of enhancements supported by documentation, according to the department's proposal.
"It is no surprise that during the last few months as we have been in the pandemic, parents have been trying to keep their children safe, so we have had a real drop in the number of children that have been going for immunization," Gillespie said. "We have had a drop over last year of almost 60,000 immunizations that have occurred. All school-aged children have to be vaccinated by Oct. 1."
The steering committee also backed the state Department of Agriculture's request to use $5 million for a grant program to help Arkansas' meat processing facilities expand their capacity amid the pandemic.
"One of the largest COVID-19 impacts to the agricultural sector is meat processing facility disruptions," according to the department's proposal. "The disruptions to the nation's food supply chain and the reduction in meat processing capacity highlighted Arkansas' need for regionalized smaller-scale meat processing facilities that producers and consumers can access during normal and emergency situations."
The grant program would reimburse up to 75% of the eligible expenses for noncapital improvements that enable local, small-scale meat processing facilities to expand processing capacity, according to the department's proposal. Custom-exempt facilities would be required to become U.S. Department of Agriculture-inspected processing facilities.
There are three local, small-scale USDA-inspected facilities and about 40 custom-exempt processors in Arkansas. The state department expects 20 or fewer applications, according to its proposal.
Wes Ward, state agriculture secretary, said the grant program is modeled after the North Dakota Department of Agriculture's meat processing plant cost-share program that uses federal coronavirus relief funds. Oklahoma and Missouri have recently announced similar programs.
Compared to what they were in May 2019, poultry processing capability is now about 9% lower, cattle processing is 23% down, and hog processing is off 17%, he said.