Arkansas lawmakers approve latest broadband project list

Requests also approved for hospital in De Queen, court-case manager

FILE — The state Capitol is shown in this undated file photo.
FILE — The state Capitol is shown in this undated file photo.

The Arkansas Department of Commerce on Friday won the Legislative Council's approval to use $93.8 million in federal American Rescue Plan funds for 14 grants for broadband projects.

The broadband projects include two each in Montgomery and Pulaski counties and one apiece in Boone, Cleburne, Cross, Faulkner, Franklin, Garland, Jackson, Logan, Searcy and St. Francis counties.

The council also approved the state Administrative Office of the Courts' request to use $20 million of the federal funds to help finance a new case management system. It also granted the state Department of Finance and Administration's request to use $6.25 million to assist the Sevier County Medical Center in opening the hospital by the end of this year.

But the council rejected a motion to approve 14 other requests totaling about $110 million in federal American Rescue Plan funds that have been stalled in a legislative subcommittee. The council subsequently voted to refer the 14 other requests to a Joint Budget Committee subcommittee for further consideration.

In March 2021, President Joe Biden signed the $1.9 trillion American Rescue Plan Act intended to help the United States recover from the economic and health effects of the covid-19 pandemic.

Republican Gov. Asa Hutchinson in May 2021 appointed the steering committee -- made up of nine Hutchinson administration officials and six state lawmakers -- to recommend the best uses of $1.57 billion in American Rescue Plan state fiscal recovery funds and $158 million in American Rescue Plan capital project funds.

The U.S. Treasury's capital projects fund award to Arkansas specifies that the money may be only used for broadband projects and related administrative expenses. Arkansas was allocated about $150.2 million for broadband projects with the balance to be used for broadband administrative expenses through 2026, state Department of Commerce Secretary Mike Preston said in a letter to steering committee Chairman Larry Walther.

As of Friday, the Arkansas Rural Connect broadband grant program has awarded $490.4 million in broadband grants to 177 projects across the state, Chelesa O'Kelley, a spokesman for the Department of Commerce's Arkansas Economic Development Commission, said late Friday afternoon.

The six other broadband grant projects undergoing further review are located in Ashley, Clark, Columbia, Hot Spring, Logan and Lonoke counties, she said.

"The Broadband Office is reviewing these six projects to confirm the accuracy of scoring and that all applications were processed consistent with the program guidelines," O'Kelley said.

The Legislative Council's approval of the state Administrative Office of the Courts's request to use $20 million in American Rescue Plan funds will allow the office to dramatically accelerate its efforts to develop a new system to replace the patchwork of legacy systems currently being used, the office said in a news release.

"Over the next two years, the AOC will be leveraging multiple vendors and modern agile methodologies to develop a landmark court management system based on the principles of continuous improvement," the Administrative Office of the Courts said. "As Arkansas courts grow and change, the new system can grow and change to better serve the people of Arkansas."

For the past two years, the Administrative Office of the Courts said it has been working with limited resources to build "a new statewide court management solution" to replace the aging systems now being used by Arkansas' district, circuit and appellate courts for case management, jury management, electronic filing, online public access and online payment processing.

The current case management vendor, Avenu Insights, has been unable to provide Arkansas courts with a viable modernization path, and the Administrative Office of the Courts determined that the only course for Arkansas courts is to build a court management system.

"No vendor will care as much about our courts as we do," said Marty Sullivan, state court administrator.

The Finance Department's request for $6.25 million to assist the Sevier County Medical Center in opening comes after Sevier County has lacked an acute care hospital for a handful of years.

The county's residents approved a 1% sales tax to support construction and operation of a new hospital, and the new hospital needs additional financial help as it nears opening due to rising costs as a result of the pandemic, according to the department.

The hospital will serve Sevier County and parts of Little River, Polk and Howard counties.

Without the $6.25 million in federal funds, the Sevier County Medical Center will be in a financial bind and might not be able to open parts of the hospital by the end of this year, Lori House, the medical center's chief executive officer, told lawmakers on Tuesday.

After the Legislative Council's meeting, state Department of Finance and Administration spokesman Scott Hardin said Arkansas now has $497.9 million in remaining American Rescue Plan funds.

If the Legislative Council approves all pending projects that have been recommended by the Arkansas American Rescue Plan Steering Committee, $292.6 million in American Rescue Plan funds would remain, he said.

In a voice vote, the council rejected a motion by state Sen. Linda Chesterfield, D-Little Rock, to authorize the use of American Rescue Plan funds on 14 requests totaling more than $110 million that have stalled in a legislative subcommittee.

These requests include the Department of Human Service's request for $30.15 million for improving substance abuse prevention services, and the Finance Department's $9.9 million request for shoring up domestic violence prevention funding and helping finance the construction of a new Women & Children First emergency shelter in Little Rock.

The 14 requests also included projects at Arkansas Tech University, University of Arkansas at Monticello, University of Arkansas at Pine Bluff, Northwest Technical Institute, Philander Smith College, Black River Technical College and Southeast Arkansas College as well as Arkansas Game and Fish Commission projects at the Lonoke Fish Hatchery and Bayou Meto and funds for the Arkansas Rural Health Partnership and North Arkansas Regional Medical Center.

Chesterfield said these projects that have been recommended by the American Rescue Plan steering committee have been vetted and "their needs are great."

But state Sen. Missy Irvin, R-Mountain View, called it, "A frustrating process on how these projects were put before us.

"There were winners and losers that were picked and submitted before this legislative body based on, in my opinion, just who had the greater influence and this devolved into what is basically a General Improvement Fund grant program," and the process didn't consider each lawmaker, she said.

"If you vote for this motion, you are endorsing the old GIF grant program and you are endorsing projects in specific people's districts and otherwise," Irvin said.

She said the American Rescue Plan funds should have been prioritized for health care needs and not capital projects at the state's higher education institutions or in other areas.

"I am not for building a student center with a theater and a bowling alley with these funds, and that's what you are going to vote for if you vote for that motion," she said.

But Chesterfield said that "everyone of us in this place has had money sent to various areas of need.

"It is amazing that we are still picking and choosing what we define as GIF," she said.

The Legislative Council authorizing the Finance Department's request to use $6.25 million in American Rescue Plan fund to assist the Sevier County Medical Center in its opening "goes to a specific county that is represented by a specific House member and a specific senator," Chesterfield said.

"What is amazing to me is most of [these requests] is dealing with health care. It deals with health care in underserved communities, and one of the reasons that you have the [American Rescue Plan] funds is so you deal with individuals in underserved and minority communities," she said, adding that she hasn't seen that in how the funds have been distributed.

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