The Arkansas Legislative Council on Friday approved the state Department of Commerce's request to use up to $4 million in federal American Rescue Plan funds to hire a consultant to develop a master plan for broadband implementation, after several lawmakers raised questions about the selection and the duties for the consultant.
The Department of Commerce, in collaboration with the Department of Finance and Administration and Department of Parks, Heritage and Tourism, has been authorized to hire a consulting firm to formulate the plan.
The plan for the Commerce Department's broadband office will provide short-term and long-term goals and strategies, with the result being increased broadband connectivity across Arkansas, especially in underserved areas and in rural communities, the department said.
Cost Quest Associates, Deloitte Consulting LLP and Broadband Development Group have submitted proposals to become the consultant, according to the Department of Transformation and Shared Services.
In response to a question by Sen. Jane English, R-North Little Rock, Parks, Heritage and Tourism Secretary Stacy Hurst said, "We anticipate that we will have a recommendation [for a consultant] that will be considered by ... the executive subcommittee next week."
Sen. Kim Hammer, R-Benton, asked who will select the consultant.
Afterward, Hurst said that Finance and Administration Secretary Larry Walther, Commerce Secretary Mike Preston "and I are now in the discussions phase of the procurement.
"We are reviewing documents, and along with our department experts, having discussions with the respondents," she said in a written statement. "The three of us will make the determination on the most advantageous proposal. That decision will go to ALC Executive Subcommittee for review."
During the council's meeting, Rep. Stephen Meeks, R-Greenbrier, questioned Hurst's involvement in the selection process.
"It seems kind of unusual because Commerce is where the broadband office is at, so how and what is your role ... broadband and the parks don't necessarily seem like a good marriage," he said.
Hurst said that Gov. Asa Hutchinson, "in response to the opportunity that he had with the American Rescue Plan for federal funds, formed separate working groups from within the Cabinet."
She said her role was to lead the working group for broadband and that's why she is involved in selecting the consultant.
(On June 29, Hutchinson set up a broadband working group chaired by Hurst, a water and other infrastructure projects working group chaired by Agriculture Secretary Wes Ward, and a workforce development and human capital working group chaired by Preston, Hutchinson spokeswoman Shealyn Sowers said afterward.)
Hurst said the consultant's contract will be with the Commerce Department.
Sen. Missy Irvin, R-Mountain View, said the Department of Parks, Heritage and Tourism is affected by broadband development in the state.
The Division of Heritage "has land all over the state of Arkansas, particularly in rural Arkansas, where there is zero broadband coverage," she said.
Irvin said she wants the consultant to have "boots on the ground to collect this information."
"It can't be done by telephone or email," she said. "We really have to have that boots on the ground, town-hall meetings or whatever."
Senate President Pro Tempore Jimmy Hickey, R-Texarkana, said many senators are wary about authorizing the use of $4 million of federal coronavirus relief funds to hire a broadband consultant "until they know that those boots are on the ground ... and all that meshes together."
"I just want to make 100% sure that we are on record that it is going to be done," he said, because lawmakers "want a statewide plan that will make sure that we get this right."
Hurst said the requirements for the request of proposals for a consultant include data collection and analysis of the current broadband availability and community outreach.
"I feel confident we'll cover what you are talking about at this point."
So far, the Commerce Department's Arkansas Rural Connect broadband grant program has financed $279 million in grants for 132 projects. These projects have been financed with $157.5 million in American Rescue Plan funds, $118.1 million in federal Coronavirus, Aid, Relief, and Economic Security Act funds and $4 million in state funds, according to state records.
Last week, Hutchinson set a goal for the Arkansas Rural Connect broadband program to award $250 million more in grants financed with American Rescue Plan funds by the end of this year. In March, President Joe Biden signed the American Rescue Plan Act.
The Legislative Council on Friday also approved three grant awards totaling more than $220,000 through the Rural Broadband ID program.
The grants are $75,000 to the city of Conway, $74,952 to Lead Hill and $72,500 to the West Memphis Utility Department, to conduct broadband due-diligence business studies that are required in federal grant and loan applications for broadband infrastructure, said Joseph Sanford Jr., director of the University of Arkansas for Medical Sciences' Institute of Digital Health & Innovation.
The Rural Broadband ID program has received $2 million in state funds to award in grants, UAMS spokeswoman Andrea Peel said afterward.
So far, 18 applicants have been awarded $1.18 million in grants, she said.