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Covid-aid committee endorses funds for Commerce Department, PBS

by Michael R. Wickline | March 17, 2021 at 4:24 a.m.

A state panel on Tuesday endorsed federal coronavirus relief fund requests from the state Department of Commerce for $12.2 million and from Arkansas PBS for $1.2 million.

That would leave state with about $36.2 million in unallocated relief funds, said Larry Walther, secretary of the state Department of Finance and Administration.

The state received $1.25 billion in federal coronavirus relief funds under the federal Coronavirus Aid, Relief and Economic Security Act enacted by Congress and then-President Donald Trump a year ago. Gov. Asa Hutchinson appointed a 15-member steering committee to recommend the best uses of these funds.

With no dissenters, the CARES Act steering committee recommended approval of the Commerce Department's request for $10 million for the Division of Workforce Services call center contract with Maximus and for $2.2 million for the division to use the Arkansas National Guard to help with unemployment benefit applications and documents in April.

Commerce Secretary Mike Preston said the $10 million request is for the call center contract that the Division of Workforce Services has to help with pandemic-related unemployment assistance.

"With the passing of this last piece of [federal coronavirus] legislation, now it takes us to September, so the additional $10 million will be enough to cover us for the Maximus contract to keep that support for the call center going until that time in September," he said.

As to the $2.2 million for the National Guard, Preston said, "Everyone is seeing the reports of the PUA [pandemic unemployment assistance] and the additional work and the challenges that we have had, the long lines at our workforce centers, so we've been working with Gen. [Kendall] Penn and his team on a plan that is going to bring in Guard support for 30 days," he said.

"That is going to allow us to hopefully get through some of the backlog that we have in the PUA system [and] better manage those lines at the workforce center."

Part of the issue is that the Biden administration put out new guidance tied to the new federal law on the pandemic unemployment assistance, "so they opened up additional areas that would allow people to qualify," he said.

"We have to go through now and review all the ones that have been previously rejected and see if they fit under this category, so it is going to be a tremendous workload here in the next two to four weeks and the Guard support is going to allow us to get through that," Preston said.

The state tried to cover this $2.2 million cost through the Federal Emergency Management Agency, and "unfortunately we were denied for the federal funding to allow this to happen, but the CARES [funding] is a vehicle that would allow us to do this and support the Guard," he said.

Rep. Lane Jean, R-Magnolia, asked how many Guard members will help the Division of Workforce Services.

Preston said 111 National Guard members from throughout the state will help the division in April.

"We are going to do some strategic ID verifications," he said. "That's one of the pinch points for us right now. Part of the new requirements under the PUA is you have to verify your ID on the front end, so we have a way you can do that by uploading it online from a unique URL. But some people are having difficulties with that or don't have access to broadband or just can't do it and they have to do it in person, so we are going to set some kind of mass ID checkpoints that are going to allow us to get through that and the Guard is going to be able to come in and assist us to do that."

Some National Guard members will help the Division of Workforce Service with some of the appeals and claims and help review unemployment applications, Preston said.

Rep. Michelle Gray, R-Melbourne, said, "The last month or so has been really, really rough on the legislators because of all of the emails that we've been getting with so many people stuck in review.

"Are the National Guard that you are going to bring in in April ... already trained and ready to go? Will they be able to hit the ground running and help clear this review queue starting in April?"

Preston said, "The hope is that we will be able to get some of them trained to do that, but also alleviating the pressure in some of the local offices to allow those who are trained to focus on that and getting that review cleared out.

"The emails have just been overwhelming certainly to the legislators, and myself and Dr. [Charisse] Childers and her team are just inundated with them and want to make sure that that we getting through backlog and that people, who have legitimate claims, let's get them paid and I think the Guard is going to ... help us do that."

Childers is director of the Division of Workforce Services.

Gray questioned whether one month of help from the Arkansas National Guard will get division get through its backlog.

Preston said he hopes the division is "better positioned" in 30 days.

Arkansas PBS asked for $1.2 million more in federal coronavirus relief funds to expand its reach across the state. The public TV network previously received $5.2 million in relief funds for a project to add five new transmitters across the state.

Marty Ryall of Arkansas PBS said the projected cost was $6.4 million, but only asked the steering committee for $5.2 million because the initial deadline to spend that money was Dec. 31, 2020.

"Now there is more time we have time to finish out this project to its competition," he said.

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