Joint committee to evaluate uses for federal relief dollars (Capitol Update)

Last Wednesday the Joint Committee on Pandemic Relief Funding — co-chaired by Sen. Roger Thompson, R-Okemah, and Rep. Kevin Wallace, R-Wellston — outlined the process it will use to distribute the $1.87 billion that will be coming to Oklahoma through the American Rescue Plan Act (ARPA). The ARPA funds will be delivered to the states in two allocations over two years and can be used only to respond to the public health emergency and negative economic effects caused by the coronavirus pandemic. Such uses can include payments to state agencies, nonprofits, industry, and households. They can also include investments in public infrastructure.

Gov. Kevin Stitt and legislative leadership have made clear the money will be used “to make strategic, one-time investments that will benefit future generations while improving services today,” according to Stitt. Last session, legislators passed and Stitt signed, House Bill 2932 that prohibits state agencies from using federal pandemic relief funds in ways that grow the need for future state dollars once federal funds are spent. It prohibits, unless expressly authorized by the Legislature, any agency, board, commission, department, council, instrumentality, or other entity organized within the executive branch to utilize the federal funds in a manner that will or that will be likely to increase the demand for state-appropriated funds or any other state funds for the fiscal year ending June 30, 2021, or any fiscal year thereafter.

The committee has hired Melissa Houston and her consulting firm, 929 Strategies, to ensure compliance with federal requirements associated with the funds. The Legislative Office of Fiscal Transparency, also chaired by Thompson and Wallace along with State Auditor and Inspector Cindy Byrd, was critical of the way Gov. Stitt’s administration handled some of the earlier federal CARES Act funding. Houston has an impressive background. She was appointed Commissioner of Labor by Gov. Mary Fallin after serving as Secretary for Education and Workforce Development under Fallin. She also served as chief of staff under former Attorney General Scott Pruitt. Houston served on Gov. Stitt’s transition team as a strategic advisor and managed his policy agenda development.

House Speaker Charles McCall, R-Atoka, and Senate President Pro Tempore Greg Treat, R-Oklahoma City, announced in June the creation of the joint committee, which is made up of 12 representatives and 12 senators. The committee members, besides Thompson and Wallace are: Rep. Rhonda Baker, R-Yukon; Rep. Meloyde Blancett, D-Tulsa; Rep. Jeff Boatman, R-Tulsa; Rep. Brad Boles, R-Marlow; House Majority Floor Leader Jon Echols, R-Oklahoma City; Rep. Scott Fetgatter, R-Okmulgee; House Appropriations and Budget Committee Vice Chair Kyle Hilbert, R-Depew; Rep. Kevin McDugle, R-Broken Arrow; Rep. Cyndi Munson, D-Oklahoma City; Rep. Mike Osburn, R-Edmond; Rep. Jay Steagall, R-Yukon; Senate Majority Floor Leader Kim David, R-Porter; Senate Minority Floor Leader Kay Floyd, D-Oklahoma City; Senate Appropriations Committee Vice Chair Chuck Hall, R-Perry; Sen. John Haste, R-Broken Arrow; Sen. Brent Howard, R-Altus; Sen. Julia Kirt, D-Oklahoma City; Sen. John Michael Montgomery, R-Lawton; Sen. Casey Murdock, R-Felt; Sen. Adam Pugh, R-Edmond; Sen. Brenda Stanley, R-Midwest City; and Treat.

The committee will receive and evaluate proposals for use of the funds. The proposals will be reviewed first by one of four subcommittees: Economic Development and Workforce, which will deal with business, commerce and education proposals; Health and Human Services, which will consider public health, human services, housing, and children youth and family proposals; Government Transformation and Collaboration, which will focus on government modernization, tourism and collaboration with county, municipals and tribal governments; and Transportation, Infrastructure and Rural Development, focusing on broadband, agriculture and natural resources, water, utilities, wildlife, and public safety. Committee members who will serve on the subcommittees have yet to be named.

Members of Stitt’s cabinet also will participate as the subcommittees consider proposals related to their cabinet areas. The proposals will then be considered by the full committee and those recommended for approval will advance to a panel made up of six legislators — three senators and three representatives who have yet to be named, but likely to be the top leadership in the House and Senate — State Chief Operating Officer Steven Harpe, State Chief Financial Officer Amanda Rodriguez, Secretary of State Brian Bingman, and Stitt’s Chief of Staff Bond Payne. Those proposals that make it through that review will go to Stitt, who will make the final decisions.

According to Houston, applicants should not be focused on developing a “list of wants” or a “shopping list” of how to spend the funds. Rather they should focus on what are the problems the pandemic has caused or exacerbated in the state and how to address them. According to Houston, “we are budgeting for outcomes, not expenditures.” A standardized form is expected to be available on the Legislative Service Bureau’s website August 1. However, Houston said, the discussion of individual projects at the subcommittee level may not be for several months.

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ABOUT THE AUTHOR

Steve Lewis served as Speaker of the Oklahoma House of Representatives from 1989-1990. He currently practices law in Tulsa and represents clients at the Capitol.

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