The federal government has pumped billions of dollars directly to state and local governments in response to the pandemic and recession.
Since March 13, 2020, when then President Donald Trump declared a national emergency, Arkansas' state government has received $1.25 billion under the Coronavirus Aid, Relief and Economic Security (CARES) Act and close to $1.6 billion under the American Rescue Plan (ARP) Act. There is also close to $158 million that is allocated to Arkansas for infrastructure, mostly Internet.
That's about $1,000 per Arkansan. It's also roughly equal to half of Arkansas' general fund state budget in a single year.
Where did the money go and how do we know where it went? Despite public officials' efforts to use these billions in beneficial ways, some will still feel they have been shortchanged, leading to mistrust of government officials. After all, billions of covid-19 relief dollars could tempt even an angel.
According to the Pew Research Center, public trust in government remains low. The May 2021 Pew Research Center Report, "Americans See Broad Responsibilities for Government; Little Change Since 2019" states that only 24 percent of Americans trust the federal government to do the right thing.
One way to improve people's trust in their elected officials is to be transparent about the decision-making process and the outcomes of those decisions. A 2021 study, "Transparency and Trust in Government: Evidence from a Survey Experiment" published in the Word Development Journal by Martin Alessandro, et al., finds that increasing transparency helps improve trust in government. When residents see what officials intend and do, they can more easily understand why public officials are making certain choices.
Fortunately, technology makes it easier for governments to be transparent.
Thankfully, the Arkansas American Rescue Plan Act (ARPA) Steering Committee livestreams all their meetings, which provides public access to the decision-making process. Gov. Asa Hutchinson created the committee to assist him in putting the ARPA funds to the best use. Similarly, the Arkansas CARES Act Steering Committee live- streamed their meetings. They were in charge of the funds Arkansas received through the CARES Act.
I have watched some of the ARPA Steering Committee meetings on the committee's website. I've also read through the minutes. One meeting in particular is illustrative.
On July 28, the ARPA Steering Committee met with the purpose of authorizing funds for broadband. The committee members insisted that it is important to have a strategy on how best to serve the communities that are in greater need of broadband. They requested specific information on which communities were being served and how many people would benefit from increased connectivity.
Some of the committee members--including Arkansas Department of Parks, Heritage and Tourism Secretary Stacy Hurst, Sen. Ronald Caldwell, Rep. Jeff Wardlaw, Sen. Keith Ingram, Sen. Bill Sample, and Department of Labor and Licensing Secretary Daryl Bassett--suggested that there should be an independent consultant to help them identify the communities in greater need so that the funds are put to the best use. As reported by the Arkansas Democrat-Gazette on Sept. 18, the request to hire a consultant has since been approved by the Arkansas Legislative Council.
If these meetings were being held in secrecy, neither I nor other Arkansans would have a clue about the legitimate concerns the committee members have.
Seeing them at work helps build trust in public officials that they want to do the right thing. And we don't know if they would be as diligent if they were not livestreaming. Fortunately, we get to watch the meetings.
Streaming the committee meetings is great, but some states go further.
More transparent states provide detailed accounting. We need more than just the aggregated amounts allocated to the various programs. Alabama, for example, provides a breakdown of the recipients and the expenditures under each program. Another notable feature about Alabama is that Coronavirus Relief Fund (CRF) plans are reported on a website, crf.alabama.gov, which is solely dedicated to CRF reporting.
Others, such as Idaho, use their already existing transparency website. Arkansas also has a transparency website, transparency.Arkansas.gov, but this information is not on it.
Transparency promotes trust. These funds will impact us for a long time, and Arkansans deserve transparency in accounting and processing of these one-time federal funds.
Mavuto Kalulu is a policy analyst with the Arkansas Center for Research in Economics (ACRE) at the University of Central Arkansas in Conway and co-author of "Access Arkansas: County Web Transparency," an annual report on the accessibility of fiscal, administrative, and political information in Arkansas counties. The views expressed are those of the author and do not necessarily reflect those of UCA.