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Arkansas moves to boost payments to jobless

$300-a-week supplement needs federal OK by Michael R. Wickline | August 22, 2020 at 7:53 a.m.
FILE — The state Capitol is shown in this file photo.

A proposal aimed at providing about 100,000 Arkansans who claim unemployment benefits with extra weekly payments of $300 from the federal government cleared the Arkansas Legislative Council on Friday.

The council approved the state Department of Commerce's request for an $800 million appropriation transfer at the Division of Workforce Services to add the supplemental benefit, which would be retroactive to Aug. 1.

The Federal Emergency Management Agency website shows the state has submitted its application to the federal agency for the benefit extension.

"We hope to hear back from FEMA soon, although we realize they are also processing applications from dozens of other states at this time," Alisha Curtis, a spokeswoman for the Commerce Department, said Friday after the council's meeting.

[CORONAVIRUS: Click here for our complete coverage » arkansasonline.com/coronavirus]

The $300 a week is an extension of pandemic unemployment assistance that President Donald Trump called for in an Aug. 8 executive order. The original $600 a week supplemental benefit was approved as part of the Coronavirus Aid, Relief, and Economic Security Act that Congress approved in March. That supplement expired July 31.

In other action, the council Friday approved:

• The Commerce Department's requests for $100 million in spending authority to use federal coronavirus relief funds for the Arkansas Rural Connect broadband grant program.

• The state Department of Agriculture's request for $5 million in spending authority to use federal coronavirus funds to create a meat processing grant program.

• Arkansas PBS's request for $5.06 million in spending authority to use federal coronavirus funds to expand its broadcast coverage.

The state Department of Finance and Administration on Friday temporarily withdrew its request to use $150 million in federal relief funds to reimburse cities and counties for coronavirus expenses.

State Budget Administrator Jake Bleed said delaying the council's consideration of the request will allow state officials to flesh out the request to the state's 15-member CARES Act steering committee. The committee will consider the full request before the council acts on it.

The federal funds are part of $1.25 billion that the state received through the CARES Act. The steering committee, appointed by Gov. Asa Hutchinson, recommends the best use of those funds.

UNEMPLOYMENT MONEY

Trump's executive order gives states the option of adding the extra $300 weekly benefit payments to support unemployed workers during the pandemic. FEMA is administering this program in partnership with the U.S. Department of Labor.

Earlier this week, state Commerce Secretary Michael Preston said the goal is to begin paying the benefit shortly after Labor Day, which is Sept. 7.

FEMA is processing $44 billion in unemployment benefits from the federal Disaster Relief Fund to pay for the extended unemployment benefits. Under the program, the supplemental benefits will expire Dec. 27 or when the $44 billion is exhausted.

Trump's Aug. 8 executive order outlined a process for states to offer claimants a $400 weekly benefit, including $300 that would be reimbursed by FEMA and $100 that the states could add.

State Sen. Trent Garner, R-El Dorado, asked Bleed, "What's the excuse or reasoning for the [Hutchinson] administration not to give the $100 extra to the people who desperately need it?"

Bleed said, "We haven't been able to get a firm handle on exactly how much that would cost us.

"Initially, it looked like it was $265 million," he said. "But when we look at projections and include potentially increasing growth, we might be looking at an excess of $400 million in costs. That would more than exhaust the reserves that we put aside in the coronavirus relief money and, at this point, I'm not sure what other revenue sources the state might have to expend to fulfill that $100 obligation."

Sen. Bruce Maloch, D-Magnolia, said state officials have advised him that the state plans to use its traditional unemployment benefits as matching funds.

Bleed said the state's request to participate in the program is based on the $300 benefit coming from the federal government and is contingent on the state not having to provide more money.

He said Trump's order benefits those people who make at least $100 a week in unemployment, but some people in Arkansas make the minimum of $81.

"So absent some kind of action by the state, these folks would not be able to participate in the program," Bleed said.

The latest guidance from the federal government is the state will not be allowed to use an estimated $3 million to $4 million in federal coronavirus relief funds to boost state benefits up to $100, he said.

"But there may be an option through an executive order of our governor to increase the amount coming out of the unemployment insurance trust fund to bring those folks up to $100," Bleed said.

BROADBAND, MEAT PROCESSING

House Speaker Matthew Shepherd, R-El Dorado, and Senate President Pro Tempore Jim Hendren, R-Sulphur Springs, requested $100 million more of the federal funds for Arkansas Rural Connect. They said the pandemic has reinforced the need to expand broadband access for education and other needs.

The spending authority approved by the council will provide $95 million for the grant program and $5 million for administration. The program previously received $5.7 million in federal funds and $5.7 million in state funds.

The Agriculture Department's grant program would help Arkansas' meat-processing facilities expand their capacity amid the pandemic.

The revised program would reimburse up to 90% of eligible expenses for noncapital improvements -- up from the initial proposal to reimburse up to 75% -- based on the recommendation of the agriculture committees, Agriculture Secretary Wes Ward said earlier this week.

Arkansas has three small-scale meat-processing facilities that have the necessary federal inspections to allow the commercial sale of their product, and about 40 custom-exempt and non-federally inspected facilities that cannot sell their processed meat commercially, according to the Agriculture Department.

The grants will be available to existing federally inspected facilities and custom-exempt facilities that expand and meet U.S. Department of Agriculture inspection requirements, as well as any new facilities that meet USDA inspection standards, the state agency said in its proposal.

ARKANSAS PBS

The council's approval for Arkansas PBS to use federal funds to expand its coverage comes after the council on July 23 approved $120,000 to complete engineering studies for expanding the network's transmission reach.

Ed Leon, deputy director of Arkansas PBS, told the council, "We have successfully identified the low power signals and frequencies that will fill the four transmission gap areas, and that's the new good news.

"The even better news is that we are going to exceed our initial projected coverage of 96.4% of the state and it is going to jump up to 99.5% of the state, so that's near universal coverage," he said. He said the public television network covers 76% of Arkansas.

The Federal Communications Commission has indicated it will approve Arkansas PBS's license applications and the applications will be delivered within the next week, Leon said.

HEALTH FUNDING

State Sen. Will Bond, D-Little Rock, pressed Stephanie Williams, chief of staff for the state Department of Health, about whether the department has enough federal relief funds to combat the coronavirus.

"I think where we stand right now, we feel comfortable that what we have is adequate, and we are immediately ready as soon as we feel differently to raise that to the attention of the CARES committee and to this body," Williams said.

"I appreciate that you all are trying to make very thoughtful decisions, but it is dynamic and changing," she said. "I think what we have now is sufficient based on what we know."

Information for this article was contributed by Andy Moreau of the Arkansas Democrat-Gazette.

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