The Legislature's Joint Budget Committee on Thursday approved the state Department of Commerce's request to use $53.3 million in federal American Rescue Plan funds for eight broadband grant projects and $2 million for broadband administrative expenses.
The proposed broadband grant projects are in Ashley, Baxter, Chicot, Clark, Columbia, Hot Spring, Logan and Lonoke counties
On Jan. 25, a legislative subcommittee delayed action on this request, after Gov. Sarah Huckabee Sanders issued an executive order repealing former Gov. Asa Hutchinson's executive orders that created the Arkansas American Rescue Plan Steering Committee and the Governor's Infrastructure Planning Advisory Committee.
In May 2021, Hutchinson signed an executive order creating Arkansas' American Rescue Plan 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. In March 2021, President Joe Biden signed the $1.9 trillion American Rescue Plan Act that is designed to help the United States recover from the economic and health effects of the covid-19 pandemic.
The state Department of Commerce requested spending authority of $53.3 million in American Rescue Plan funds to fund eight broadband projects and $2 million in broadband administrative expenses for a total request of $55.3 million, state broadband office Director Glen Howie Jr. said in a letter dated Jan. 13 to the budget committee's performance evaluation and expenditure review subcommittee.
The eight proposed broadband grant projects include:
• A $14.2 million grant to Wave Rural Connect LLC/Cox Communication LLC for a total project of $19.6 million in Logan County.
• A $10.9 million grant to Connect2First Internet for a total project of $14.7 million in Lonoke County.
• A $7.9 million grant to CableSouth Media LLC for a total project of $10.7 million in Ashley County.
• A $6.6 million grant to Ashley-Chicot Electric Cooperative Inc. for a total project of $8.8 million in Chicot County.
• A $5.2 million grant to Four States Fiber for a total project of $8 million in Columbia County.
• A $4.5 million grant to South Central Connect LLC/Central Arkansas Telephone Cooperative Inc. for a total project of $$6.1 million in Hot Spring County.
• A $2.1 million grant to NEXT Powered by NAFC for a total project of $2.9 million in Baxter County.
• A $1.6 million grant to South Central Connect LLC for a total project of $2.2 million in Clark County.
Howie noted in his letter that the Legislative Council in mid-December authorized the use of $93.8 million in American Rescue Plan funds for 14 broadband grant projects.
The U.S. Treasury has allocated $158 million to Arkansas from the capital projects fund authorized under the American Rescue Plan with $150.2 million of the award to be used for broadband projects, and the balance of $7.8 million to be used for broadband administrative expenses through 2026, Howie said in his letter.
So far, the Arkansas Rural Connect broadband grant program has awarded $550 million in federal and state funds for broadband projects across the state, said Jim Hudson, chief of staff for the Department of Commerce.