The Arkansas Legislative Council on Friday granted the state Department of Commerce's request for $5 million in spending authority to use federal American Rescue Plan funds to cover administrative expenses at the state's broadband office.
In other action, the council voted to refer the state Department of Energy and Environment's request for $32 .8 million in spending authority to use federal funds for its weatherization assistance program for low-income Arkansans back to a subcommittee for additional review.
The $5 million in spending authority requested by the Commerce Department includes $4 million for the Arkansas Rural Connect broadband grant program's contractors and $1 million for the broadband office's staffing.
Department of Commerce spokeswoman Alisha Curtis said that the broadband office has one administrative support employee, who is paid with American Rescue Plan funds, and the $1 million appropriation will fund salary and fringe benefits for the three new employees and the existing administrative support employee
In May, the Legislative Council approved the creation of a new director position for the state's broadband office with a salary up to $200,000 a year, as well as two new systems architect positions for the office with a pay range of $89,541 to $129,835 a year.
Curtis said earlier this week that the department has received six applications for the director post.
Due to proposed changes to the state broadband master plan under the the Arkansas Rural Connect program, the scope of work for the program's contractors needs to be expanded, according to Commerce Secretary Mark Preston. These proposed changes include implementing competitive bidding and making grant awards using census block groups, he said.
"This requested amount will enable the broadband office to take the steps necessary to resume issuing broadband grants," Preston said.
Jim Hudson, chief of staff at the Department of Commerce, said that the $4 million for the broadband grant program's contractors is primarily for the University of Arkansas for Medical Sciences' Institute for Digital Health & Innovation in fiscal 2023, which begins July 1.
Through the Arkansas Rural Connect broadband grant program, the Commerce Department has funded projects totaling $368 million that made broadband available to more than 109,000 households in the state, according to Curtis.
In April, a report from the Broadband Development Group estimated the cost of extending broadband access to about 110,000 households in Arkansas without high-speed internet at $550 million. In its report, the group suggested that part of the $550 million price tag could be funded by tapping into federal funds in the range of $254 million to $358 million, reducing the remaining households down to about 10,000 underserved households within three years.
In other action, the Legislative Council on Friday sent the Department of Energy and Environment's request for spending authority for $32.8 million in funds for the Arkansas weatherization assistance program back to the council's Performance Evaluation and Expenditure Review Subcommittee for further review.
The Legislative Council also authorized the subcommittee to be the final legislative hurdle for the request.
Subcommittee Co-Chairman Sen. Jonathan Dismang, R-Searcy, said he hopes to be able to call the meeting before July 1, after the department has gathered information needed to respond to lawmakers' questions about the program. He said he wants to make sure that the state has an effective and efficient program.
Mitchell Simpson, director of the state Energy Office at the state Department of Energy and Environment, said the weatherization program is designed to help low-income residents who need help weatherizing their homes. The program can be accessed through six communication action agencies and non-profit groups across the state.
Simpson said the state face a pre-application deadline of July 1 for the federal funds.
The pre-application signals the department's intention to operate the weatherization program that is funded by the federal Infrastructure Investment and Jobs Act and confirms the department's official identification information, such as the employer identification number, department spokeswoman Donnally Davis said.
The July 1 deadline is only for the department's intention to file; the full application is not due until October 1, she said.
Asked whether there would be a problem if the Legislature doesn't grant the requested spending authority by June 30, Davis said "if the department does not file the [notice of intent] by July 1, then the department will not receive the preauthorized 15% at that time which may be used for administration, program planning, and application preparation."
At issue would be 15 % of the $32.8 million in federal funds that the U.S. Department of Energy has awarded the state Department of Energy and Environment for the program based on federal agency's funding allocation formula, she said.
In recent years, the department's annual allocation has been approximately $2.5 million a year, but the program has been in existence in Arkansas since the late 1970s, Davis said. The $32.8 million in the Infrastructure Investment and Jobs Act funds will be released in phases over the next five years, she said.