The Arkansas Legislative Council on Friday authorized requests to spend federal American Rescue Plan funds, including on COVID-19 matters and $120 million to finance grants to help pay for shovel-ready broadband projects across the state.
The council also authorized its co-chairmen to allow the use of up to $27 million more of these federal funds for other broadband grants after the technical reviews of the proposed projects are completed.
The council signed off on the state Department of Health's request to using $90.8 million in American Rescue Plan funds -- obtained through a U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention grant -- for coronavirus testing in public schools.
The Health Department's request to use $18.1 million to help hospitals open 54 more intensive-care beds for COVID-19 patients also won the council's approval Friday.
In March, President Joe Biden signed into law the $1.9 trillion American Rescue Plan Act that is designed to help the United States' recovery from the economic and health effects of the pandemic.
The Legislative Council voted to grant the state Department of Commerce authority to use up to $120 million in the rescue funds for 34 proposed Arkansas Rural Connect broadband grants for projects that state officials have determined are "shovel ready."
The largest proposed grants among the 34 are $10.7 million for Grant County and internet service provider Windstream; $10.4 million for northern Independent County and internet provider Hillbilly Wireless; $7.5 million for Faulkner County and Windstream; and $7 million for Sevier County and Windstream.
The council also authorized its co-chairmen, Sen. Terry Rice, R-Waldron, and Rep. Jeff Wardlaw, R-Hermitage, to approve the use of $27 million for the 12 other broadband grants, after each project completes technical review by the University of Arkansas for Medical Sciences' Institute for Digital Health & Innovation and they are considered "shovel-ready."
The largest proposed grants among the 12 are $9 million for Perry County and Windstream; $7.6 million for southern Independence County and internet service provider Ritter; and $5.9 million for Ashley County and CableSouth Media3 SwyftConnect.
The council also directed the Department of Commerce to have the council's executive subcommittee to consider the proposed contract for the consultant that the department intends to hire to develop a statewide broadband plan.
The decision of the executive subcommittee "would be the final decision versus waiting until the Review Committee meets," said Sen. Missy Irvin, R-Mountain Home, who made the motion approved by the council.
"We want that project expedited and we want it done as soon as possible."
At the request of some legislators, the Department of Commerce issued a request for proposals to hire a consultant to develop a statewide broadband plan "and try to put a pause button on this," said Sen. Kim Hammer, R-Benton.
The request for proposals states that it is a collaborative effort with the Department of Commerce; the Department of Parks, Heritage and Tourism; and the Department of Finance and Administration.
CostQuest Associates Inc., Deloitte Consulting LLP and Broadband Development Group LLC submitted proposals for the contract, according to Department of Transformation and Shared Services spokeswoman Alex Johnston.
Hammer questioned when the contract for the consultant will be awarded.
"It is the opinion of some that we need to have a consultant that is developing the overall approach moving forward, and ... if we let these [proposed broadband grant funds] out of here, it's going to be with the understanding that RFP is going to be completed and a consultant will be hired to review going forward what our plan is for implementation of the rest of the broadband projects," he said.
Leslie Fisken, chief of legislative affairs at the Department of Parks, Heritage and Tourism, said state officials have a Sept. 17 target date to announce an intent to award a consultant contract.
Irvin said the broadband partnership is important as well as "making sure that we are working in concert with the Department of Commerce and [Arkansas Economic Development Commission] on this."
She said UAMS' Institute of Digital Health & Innovation "is really the brain trust about broadband in the state of Arkansas." The institute performs the technical reviews for the Arkansas Rural Connect broadband grant program and also administers the state's Rural ID Broadband grant program, she said.
The Arkansas Rural Connect program awarded $118.1 million in broadband grants in fiscal 2021 that ended June 30 and $30.7 million in broadband grants so far in fiscal 2022, which started July 1.
The Legislative Council on Friday authorized the Department of Health to use $90.8 million in federal funds from the CDC to provide testing resources to school districts to identify cases rapidly and mitigate the spread of the virus within schools. The funding period for the federal grant is from Aug. 1 through July 31, 2022.
In response to the virus outbreak, Congress appropriated emergency supplemental funds under the American Rescue Plan Act of 2021 to provide recipients the ability to support comprehensive testing for grades kindergarten through 12, according to the Health Department.
The department said it plans to use the funds to augment salary or other costs associated with the performance of pandemic-specific duties, such as coordinating testing for students and staff members, reporting important testing information and working with the department.
The department said it also intends to use the funds for surveillance testing programs from third-party vendors for school districts that wish to participate in such a program.
Sen. Jonathan Dismang, R-Searcy, questioned whether the Health Department would hire vendors through bids or through a sole-source contract.
Renee Mallory, the department's chief of staff, said the department intends to seek bids and the goal is to hire one vendor.
Dismang asked if the department already has had discussions with a vendor.
The department's public health programs policy coordinator, Phillip Gilmore, said many vendors have reached out to the department, "but we haven't had any kind of formal discussions with them yet."
With no questions or discussion, the Legislative Council approved the Health Department's request to use $18.1 million in rescue funds to help hospitals staff 54 more intensive-care beds.
The request includes:
• $12.42 million to CHI St. Vincent's Little Rock campus for 24 beds and CHI St. Vincent's Hot Springs campus for 12 beds, both for 60 days at $5,750 per bed per day.
• $3 million to St. Bernards Medical Center in Jonesboro for 10 beds for 60 days at $5,000 per bed per day.
• $2.736 million to Jefferson Regional Medical Center in Pine Bluff for eight beds for 60 days at $5,700 per bed per day.
In the past two weeks, COVIDComm -- a system which helps find beds for coronavirus patients -- has reported there have been only a few days in which an ICU bed could rapidly be identified for a patient needing transfer, Health Secretary Jose Romero said Wednesday.
That means that patients have to wait in the emergency room before they are hospitalized or have access to a critical-care bed, he said.