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State committee endorses broadband proposals

by Michael R. Wickline | June 16, 2020 at 7:34 a.m.
FILE - Sen. Jimmy Hickey, R-Texarkana, looks over appropriation bills that senators voted on at the state Capitol during the Legislature’s fiscal session in 2018.

The panel appointed by Gov. Asa Hutchinson to recommend the best uses of $1.25 billion in federal coronavirus relief funds late Monday afternoon endorsed proposals to use $21.6 million of the funds for two broadband grant programs.

The 15-member CARES Act Steering Committee also recommended the governor approve proposals to use $13.7 million of the relief funds for administration and modernization of the state's unemployment insurance system.

The committee also advanced to the Republican governor a proposal to use $12.1 million to make payments to direct care workers of ambulance companies.

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 steering committee is comprised of eight of Hutchinson's department heads and deputy chief of staff of external operations Bill Gossage, three senators and three representatives. The governor makes final decisions on using the federal funds.

The $21.6 million recommended for the two broadband grant programs includes $19.3 million for Gov. Asa Hutchinson's Arkansas Rural Connect program, which already has $5.7 million in state funds, and $2.3 million for the Rural Broadband I.D. program.

"The coronavirus really kind of ripped the Band-aid off and exposed the absolute need for broadband and how deficient we were in Arkansas for meeting the needs of both of our students, plus the health care situation that they have, particularly students in K-12 education and higher ed as well," said a committee member, Sen. Missy Irvin, R-Mountain View.

The coronavirus also has demonstrated the need for high-speed broadband for businesses and their workers to work remotely, she said.

The Arkansas Rural Connect program is aimed at getting high-speed broadband service to rural areas for education, health care and telemedicine, and remote work around the state, said Department of Commerce Secretary Mike Preston, who also serves on the steering committee. Local governments and internet services providers will apply for grants and the funding will go to the Internet service providers, he said.

"What we are trying to do right now is get this immediate funding out so we can help those who need it the most," Preston said.

The Rural Broadband I.D. program will be based at the University of Arkansas for Medical Sciences' Office of Digital Health and Innovation, and help communities and Internet providers to navigate the federal funding application process, identify the most reliable partners available to use for due diligence studies, and to issue grants, Irvin said in a letter to Hutchinson.

With the Rural Broadband I.D. program, "we now have a much more comprehensive strategy of how we are going to get this done and broadband deployed across the state," Preston said.

The $13.7 million in federal funds recommended by the panel for the unemployment insurance system includes $5 million for modernization of the system, $3.7 million for improving and ongoing maintenance of the new Pandemic Unemployment Assistance system, and $5 million for administration of the system.

Division of Workforce Services Director Charisse Childers told the steering committee that the state's rising unemployment rate and increased unemployment claims have "put a tremendous strain on our unemployment system, our unemployment benefits and also on the systems that we have to support unemployment insurance in our state."

Carder Hawkins, chief information officer for the division, said the division is seeking $5 million in federal coronavirus relief funds to help begin modernization of the unemployment insurance system that is projected to cost a total about $30 million through 2023.

"The covid pandemic public health emergency has exposed the inadequacy of the legacy UI [user interface] system," he said. "States with modern UI systems and partner vendors that were already in place were significantly more agile, allowing them to provide critical support to their citizens quicker than we were able to here in Arkansas. We are struggling to implement some of those programs and be agile the way we need to deliver that quick response.

"The funding also will be used for planning and implementing a new agile UI system leveraging the current PUA [Pandemic Unemployment Assistance] system that is currently being built," Hawkins said.

The division is seeking $3.7 million in federal coronavirus relief funds for continuing development and ongoing operations with the Pandemic Unemployment Assistance system, he said.

"There is some additional development that may need to occur based on unexpected change requests that may pop up as well as ongoing maintenance and operations through the end of the year," Hawkins told the steering committee.

The requested federal funds also will allow for temporary or vendor staff to support the program through the end of this year and increase fraud detection and response, he said.

"There is a lot of noise right now about fraud and we have to get our hands around fraud, and this money will help us and the vendor get our arms around fraud so we can move that to the side, know that it is handled and continue to support the people that are legitimate applicants in the system," he said.

A committee member, Sen. Will Bond, D-Little Rock, said, "We would all agree nobody wants waste.

"But we have been behind in getting the money out in people's great time of need," he said. "I know everybody is working hard, but we were one of the final 10 states to get these PUA benefits moving and we just need to get people the money that they deserve."

The Division of Workforce Services estimates that $55.7 million will be needed to provide the necessary support to administer the unemployment insurance program and a conservative estimate of the reimbursements that will be made by the federal government to the division under the CARES Act is $50.7 million, Childers said in a letter to the steering committee chairwoman, Elizabeth Smith, who is secretary of the Department of Inspector General.

[CORONAVIRUS: Click here for our complete coverage »]

That's why the division requested $5 million to cover the expenditures such as personnel and other administrative costs, she said.

The steering committee also recommended the governor approve $12.1 million requested by the Department of Human Services for payments to ambulance company employers that will make pass-through payments to their direct care workers.

There are about 5,053 licensed emergency medical technicians and paramedics and the vast majority are fulltime workers, the Department of Human Services estimates.

The $12.1 million estimated cost of this proposal is based on 5,053 workers, with full-time workers being paid $250 per week for eight weeks, and the cost of their employer's FICA and retirement contributions.


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