Arkansas CARES committee gives nod to proposals for $57M in coronavirus aid

The state’s federal coronavirus relief aid steering committee on Thursday endorsed requests totaling about $57.1 million from various state agencies and groups.

The Arkansas Coronavirus Aid, Relief and Economic Security Act steering committee also recommended approval of requests from state agencies for another $23 million in the relief funds if the money is available at the end of this year.

In March 2020, Gov. Asa Hutchinson appointed the 15-member steering committee to recommend the best uses of $1.25 billion in federal funds. The committee is composed of nine Hutchinson administration officials and six state lawmakers.

The state has more than $63 million in the relief funds remaining to distribute before the end of this year, state officials told the steering committee on Thursday. That’s because the Federal Emergency Management Agency reimbursed $61 million to the state that it spent out of federal coronavirus relief funds and three state agencies returned more than $2 million in unspent funds.

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The panel recommended requests including:

• $21 million to the state Division of Workforce Services to cover a projected shortfall in administrative support funds for its unemployment insurance program.

State unemployment insurance administrators were notified in June that reimbursements would be paid out at only 75%, so the division is projecting a shortfall of available funds to provide the necessary support to administer the unemployment insurance program through Dec. 31, according to a written summary of the requests for funds. These expenses include personnel, rent, utilities, postage and other operation and overhead costs.

• $8 million to the Division of Workforce Services to restore the unemployment trust fund to the pre-pandemic balance level. That would allow the division to avoid levying that $8 million on businesses, said Commerce Secretary Mike Preston.

• $7.5 million to the Department of Corrections to cover public health and safety overtime expenses caused by covid-19 protocols and quarantines, staff shortages and additional security needed to manage quarantined inmates.

• $6.39 million to the Department of Human Services to provide $7,700 per occupied Medicaid bed to each qualified assisted living facility to help with meeting the continued extraordinary staffing needs during the pandemic. Hospitals and nursing homes have been provided federal funds to help cover similar needs, said department Secretary Cindy Gillespie.

• $4.8 million to the state library and public libraries across the state for covid-19-related expenses.

• $4 million to the Department of Health for case investigation and contract tracing. This funding would allow this work to continue for another 30 days past the Feb. 1 expiration of current federal funding for this work.

• $1.7 million to the Department of Health for laboratory supplies and testing.

• $1.19 million to River Valley Medical Wellness, $821,200 to Natural State Recovery Centers and $733,308 to Harbor House. These facilities provide substance abuse services and their workloads increased during the covid-19 pandemic, a state official said.

• $1 million to the Arkansas Hunger Relief Alliance to provide about 26 truckloads of canned meat, canned vegetables, ground turkey, peanut butter and other assorted grocery items.

The steering committee’s endorsement of these requests leaves the state with about $6.2 million to distribute by the end of this year, finance department Secretary Larry Walther said.

The panel recommended the state provide $3 million in federal coronavirus relief funds to the state Department of Finance and Administration to allow reimbursement of pre-approved personal protective equipment; $1.5 million to the Arkansas Supreme Court for reimbursement of juvenile officers whose jobs involve interaction with the general public; and $4.3 million to the Department of Transformation and Shared Services, Department of Transportation and Game and Fish Commission for reimbursement of vaccine incentives.

The steering committee recommended the requests be funded in that order based on the availability of funds. If any funds are available after that, the panel recommended providing up to $15.1 million to the Department of Transformation and Shared Services to help cover authorized leave.