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State panel backs $28.2M to aid colleges in fall; committee also endorses $150M for cities, counties

by Michael R. Wickline | June 11, 2020 at 7:22 a.m.
FILE — The state Capitol is shown in this file photo.

A panel appointed by Gov. Asa Hutchinson to recommend the best uses of federal coronavirus relief funds on Wednesday endorsed a $28.2 million proposal aimed at helping public and private higher-education institutions reopen this fall.

The CARES Act Steering Committee also recommended setting aside $150 million of the $1.25 billion in federal funds to assist cities and counties, and approval of proposals for $88,179 by the state Department of Energy and Environment and $39,600 by the University of Arkansas' College of Engineering.

The CARES Act is the Coronavirus Aid, Relief, and Economic Security Act passed by Congress and signed into law by President Donald Trump on March 27.

The recommendations of the steering committee -- comprised of eight of Hutchinson's department heads and deputy chief of staff of external operations Bill Gossage, three senators and three representatives -- will be considered by Hutchinson, who makes the final decisions.

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The Legislative Council often has to consider granting additional spending authority to state agencies to spend these funds, so lawmakers may influence the expenditures through their power of the purse.

The proposal to help colleges and universities reopen includes $13 million for covid-19-related supplies, $10.2 million for testing equipment and $5 million for contact tracing and surveillance, according to the written request submitted by University of Arkansas System President Donald Bobbitt.

Under this proposal, the $28.2 million in spending authority would be at the state Department of Health, "which will be able to assist us in procuring the testing instruments, the testing supplies, as well as the testing kits," said Melissa Rust, vice president of government relations for the UA System.

The department "also would be able to assist us with the arrangement that they currently have in place with [the University of Arkansas for Medical Sciences] to expand the contract tracing protocol," she said.

The state Division of Higher Education would determine the amount appropriate for each campus out of the $13 million for personal protective equipment under this proposal, Rust said.

The proposal envisions rapid point-of-care testing instruments to be at health centers or similar facilities on campuses with the appropriate personnel and lab certification.

Only symptomatic college students will be tested as they emerge, said Jay Gandy, associate provost at the University of Arkansas Northwest Regional Campus in Fayetteville.

State Health Secretary Nate Smith added that if a student tests positive for the virus, a case investigation would involve testing both symptomatic and asymptomatic contacts.

"We are talking somewhere north of 150,000 to 160,000 unique students that will be going in and on our campuses on a daily basis," Bobbitt said.

"A significant portion of them at our four-year schools will be residential in situations, where it is difficult to maintain social distancing and, although we will require masks when that can't be maintained, it has been my experience that we don't always get our college students to follow every directive that authority gives," he told the steering committee.

"We will be as diligent as we possibly can," Bobbitt said..

The state's private and public colleges and universities also have about 25,000 employees across the state, he noted.

He recalled that the higher-education institutions shut down this spring after a covid-19 patient at Jefferson Regional Medical Center in Pine Bluff inadvertently exposed students at the University of Arkansas at Pine Bluff, the University of Arkansas at Monticello, UAMS and Southeast Arkansas College in Pine Bluff.

"We are gearing up to be open this fall and ... really we can't afford to have another shutdown," Bobbitt said.

"Some of our institutions can weather it, but we have great concern, particularly for our institutions in highly rural areas, whether they would be able to weather through and push through another shutdown," he said.

A committee member, Rep. Lane Jean, R-Magnolia, asked Bobbitt about enrollment projections at the Fayetteville campus for this fall.

Officials there "are expecting to be down no more than 400 to 600 students maximum and it could even be quite a bit better than that, so they are fairly optimistic," Bobbitt said.

"Some of our ... regional four-year campuses are predicting larger decreases, although the deposits for residence halls, the individuals signing up for virtual orientation sessions, doesn't seem to belie the decrease that they initially had predicted," he said. "I wish I could give you a better answer than that right now, but at least in the case of Fayetteville, they are cautiously optimistic that they could be just down a small percentage from where they were last fall and/or perhaps even flat."

The steering committee also recommended setting aside $150 million in the funds at the state Department of Finance and Administration for cities and counties, at the request of the Arkansas Municipal League and Association of Arkansas Counties.

Committee Chairwoman Elizabeth Smith, who is secretary of the Department of Inspector General, said she wants Jean; Sen. Missy Irvin, R-Mountain View, and Finance and Administration Secretary Larry Walther, who are also on the committee; and Association of Arkansas Counties Executive Director Chris Villines and Arkansas Municipal League Executive Director Mark Hayes to develop a good estimate by September on cities' and counties' financial needs.

That would allow the committee to determine how much of the $150 million could be spent on other needs in the final four months of the year.

Hayes and Villines emphasized in a letter that "our request today is not to approve a $150 million check to cities, towns and counties across the state.

"Our request is for this committee to simply set aside these funds until we fully understand what our need is and to see what actions the federal government take in the upcoming weeks," they wrote.

The committee recommended the governor approve the Energy and Environment Department's proposal to spend $88,179 for information technology equipment needed to remotely perform inspections and and monitoring during the public-health emergency and the UA College of Engineering's proposal to use $39,600 to test wastewater as a surveillance tool for coronavirus monitoring in communities.

Print Headline: State panel backs $28.2M to aid colleges in fall


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