Spending Billions Wisely

Craig Douglass On Consumers

Spending Billions Wisely

Someone one said priorities are the steering wheel of life. Priorities: the order of importance. When it comes to money, particularly public money, priorities are essential. Setting a goal and laying a plan to achieve a specific outcome require priorities, participation, patience and proceeds.

Congress passed and the president signed on March 11 the American Rescue Plan Act. This law allocates a whopping $1.9 trillion to knock out the remaining COVID-19 crisis, mitigate other infectious disease events, and support families, children, workers, communities, business and industry, and state and local governments hurt by the 18-month pandemic.

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On May 10, the U.S. Treasury launched the Coronavirus State & Local Fiscal Recovery Fund. This program, part of the rescue plan, will provide $350 billion to eligible state, local, territorial and tribal governments. The recovery funds were accompanied by detailed guidelines — priorities — “to respond to acute pandemic response needs, fill revenue shortfalls among these governments, and support the communities and populations hardest-hit by the COVID-19 health crisis.”

The Arkansas funding breakdown:

  • State Fiscal Recovery Fund, $1.6 billion;
  • Capital Projects, $157.7 million;
  • Counties, $586.1 million;
  • Metropolitan cities (populations of 50,000 or more), $208.8 million; and
  • Non-entitlement cities (populations below 50,000), $216.2 million.

The state, the counties and the cities that fall under the metropolitan category may request their funds directly from the U.S. Treasury. Non-entitlement cities are required to request their funds from the state.

Since this plan is long and detailed (the final legislation was over 600 pages) we’ll just cover the state part.

The day after the state and local guidelines were released by the feds, Gov. Asa Hutchinson issued an executive order establishing the Arkansas American Rescue Plan Act of 2021 Steering Committee. The panel will be an “investigative and advisory body” to the governor. Its duties include prioritizing needs and identifying the most efficient practices to obtain and apply for “available relief.” In other words, members will steer the funding, hence the name.

Those are the basics. Now all the 15-member committee has to do is make sure the funds are put to their very best, most effective uses. After all, this is a once-in-a-lifetime chance to address critical needs, including such exigencies as vaccinations and vaccination incentives, future pathogen prevention, broadband expansion, the equalization of health protection for low-income, rural and remote citizens, and employment-related health risks.

The pandemic is not over, though some believe it is. Arkansas’ vaccination rate is below 40%. Plus, we have learned that personal-protection actions can significantly reduce other health risks, particularly the seasonal impact of the flu at schools, workplaces, nursing homes and prisons.

Our suggestion to the committee is to please attack health risks first! Or, as the federal guideline states upfront, “Support urgent COVID-19 response efforts to continue to decrease spread of the virus … .” Further, follow the priorities and “Address systemic public health and economic challenges that have contributed to the unequal impact of the pandemic.” We would add a focus on health care in general and infectious diseases in particular. And, as Gov. Hutchinson said in his opening remarks to the committee, include and listen to the private sector for advice, proposals, plans and direction.

It has become clear that if we don’t have a healthy citizenry, we can’t have a healthy economy. And we certainly can’t educate our children, train our workforce, put people back to work and create more private-sector jobs.

The Arkansas steering committee and Gov. Hutchinson have their work cut out for them.

It’s not a one-and-done exercise. In fact, the guidelines state that total funding must be dedicated by Dec. 31, 2024, with funded projects completed by Dec. 31, 2026. That means this effort will go well into the next governor’s first term.

Let’s make sure we choose wisely.

Craig Douglass serves as executive director of the Regional Recycling & Waste Reduction District in Pulaski County.