Governor seeks quick use of U.S. funds

Broadband, vaccinations are immediate needs, Hutchinson tells steering panel

Gov. Asa Hutchinson said Wednesday that he wants to see quick action on the state using federal American Rescue Plan funds for immediate needs to invest more in broadband development and to help vaccinate more people.

The Republican governor spoke at the first meeting of the 15-member American Rescue Plan Act steering committee that he appointed last week to recommend the best uses of $1.57 billion in State Recovery Funds that Arkansas will receive under the federal law. The steering committee comprises nine Cabinet officials and six state lawmakers.

The state also will receive $157.7 million in Capital Project Funds under the federal act, and the early indication is the steering committee will also provide recommendations for this funding, state Department of Finance and Administration spokesman Scott Hardin said afterward.

Hutchinson said there is unity between the Legislature and the executive branch on the state's priority of investing funds in broadband development, and the state Department of Commerce has experience with its Rural Connect broadband development program that received about $140 million in federal coronavirus relief funds.

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"It is all set up, that mechanism to invest more," he said.

"I would rather see our investment in broadband out there within a couple of months versus within a year," Hutchinson said. "There is the urgent need. Now some will say, 'Well, there is going to be federal money coming.' Well, the federal money, they got like four years to spend that. Let's get it out there quickly. It is an urgent need for our rural communications."

The second immediate need is in the area of vaccination, he said.

"We are not over the pandemic. We are not over the community spread of the virus, so we still have to invest," the governor said. "We have to pay attention to it. The most urgent need is vaccination, so we very well will be coming to you with specific requests for some support for incentives for vaccination that will help, whether it is the private sector, the public at large or whether it is the state."

The Legislative Council is scheduled to meet June 18.

"I would like to see some requests coming from this steering group for the June meeting of some of these urgent needs, these immediate needs that we can invest in," Hutchinson said. The Legislative Council will consider granting spending authority for state agencies to use the American Rescue Plan Act funds.

The steering committee later decided to meet next on June 2.

Hutchinson said there are unlimited options for longer-term investments with the American Rescue Plan Act funds.

There are a variety of projects, such as infrastructure investments that state officials want to make sure meet the guidelines of the U.S. Treasury, cybersecurity investments, and human investments needed in workforce training, he said.

Hutchinson also advised his department secretaries to seek guidance from the private sector "as we look at how to invest this money for the future."

"Listen to them particularly on the long-term investments," he said. For example, he said he has spoken to state Department of Commerce Secretary Mike Preston about using the Arkansas Economic Development Commission to give guidance.

Hutchinson urged the steering committee to coordinate with local governments that are to receive a total of $1 billion in federal funds under the American Rescue Plan Act.

Steering committee Chairman Larry Walther told the committee members that when people go to them seeking federal assistance, state officials should assign each request to the most logical state department that deals with those issues and let the department do the research and have the department secretary take the request back to the committee for its consideration.

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