Capitol Considerations by Senator Bill Coleman
Senator Bill Coleman, Ponca City-District 10 - October 8, 2022 3:21 pm
Senator Bill Coleman-Ponca City
The Joint Committee on Pandemic Relief Funding has worked extremely hard the last year reviewing the more than 1,400 public project proposals that were submitted, totaling over $18 billion. Given that was ten times more than Oklahoma received in American Rescue Plan Act (ARPA) federal funds, the committee really had to focus on our state’s greatest needs. All the proposals were for great projects and programs, but we simply don’t have the funds to support all of them.
In special session, the Legislature approved over $1 billion worth of projects to improve and expand our state’s healthcare and mental health systems, telemedicine, water infrastructure, broadband, workforce development and other critical areas, especially in rural Oklahoma.
Part of the vetting process was requiring applicants to thoroughly explain how their organization or program would utilize the funds they requested. The committee met with state agencies, nonprofits, the business community, and other experts to dissect the funding applications to decide which organizations and programs would give our state the most bang for our buck.
As for protecting the funds, there are strict federal guidelines attached to the funding regarding how it can be spent and any entity that doesn’t meet those can have their funds clawed back. Safeguards were also included in the bill language to ensure further accountability by the recipients. The pandemic committee will also continue meeting with the funding recipients to review the resulting projects and programs and make sure they are accomplishing their goals and meeting set milestones.
I’m pleased to say that all but three of the ARPA funding bills have gone into effect. Unfortunately, Governor Stitt did veto three of them, including $6 million for the Oklahoma Department of Emergency Management and Homeland Security (OEM) to construct nine regionally located emergency operations centers, which was part of a larger allocation to improve our state’s emergency communications network. Given how many natural disasters Oklahoma has, it’s imperative that all levels of government, first responders and law enforcement can efficiently communicate when tragedy strikes. Nearly $8.2 million didn’t move forward for necessary infrastructure upgrades for Oklahoma’s only statewide news network, the Oklahoma Education Television Authority (OETA). The last bill appropriated $10 million to the Arts Council to assist artists and art nonprofits who were negatively impacted by the pandemic. This industry suffered major financial losses, but many didn’t qualify for federal grants or pandemic unemployment benefits. The governor said while he respects the work of these entities, he didn’t feel they provided clear, long-term, strategic plans for use of their funds.
These projects were approved overwhelmingly by the joint committee and both chambers of the Legislature. We’re currently determining whether or not to reconvene in special session to address these funding areas or wait until the regular session next year. Again, we have until December 2024 to allocate these funds and until December 2026 to distribute them. I’ll keep you updated as I know more.
We also took the opportunity while in special session to address two other major needs in our state – additional drought relief for our farmers and ranchers and making a historic investment in workforce and economic development for infrastructure projects. We appropriated another $20 million in addition to the $3 million approved during the regular session for the State Emergency Drought Commission. We also allocated $250 million from the Progressing Rural Economic Prosperity Fund (PREP) to support major improvements at industrial parks, aeronautics facilities, and the state fairgrounds, along with supporting our international trade efforts.
If you have any questions or concerns about these projects, please contact me at (405) 521-5581 or [email protected]