On Tuesday, Governor Henry convened the second meeting of the 15 member American Recovery and Reinvestment Act (ARRA) Coordinating Council, which brings together Cabinet Secretaries and agency directors with primary responsibility for implementing the myriad provisions of the stimulus bill passed by Congress in February.
The meeting made clear that whatever the typical pace of state government, the response to the passage of the stimulus act has been vigorous and energetic. Every Council member was in attendance, and each reported on a flurry of meetings, conference calls, trips, and hearings related to ARRA. Apparently $2.6 billion in the midst of an economic downturn and growing budget shortfalls does get people’s attention!
The Governor’s introductory and concluding comments stressed the areas where Oklahoma has an opportunity to build on existing successes to make a strong bid for funding streams still to be awarded through competitive grant processes. In particular, early childhood education, where Education Secretary Arne Duncan will award $5 billion from a “Race to the Top” fund, is a domain where Oklahoma has gained national recognition, as the Oklahoman recently noted. Alternative energy and vocational education were also cited by the Governor.
Each member of the Council reported on their activities since the Council’s last meeting, with most submitting written reports. Some of the notable themes included the following:
- Auditor Burrage provided forceful reminders to “know where the money comes from, know where you spent it, know why, and document, document, document.” ARRA presents extensive and unprecedented reporting and accounting requirements, with a much greater emphasis on accountability as dollars are being spent, rather than after-the-fact auditing. He is developing a federal stimulus questionnaire that will be distributed shortly to all agencies to help them identify what they need to know and do to remain in compliance. He will also be embarking on a series of seven regional town hall meetings across the state to brief private sector companies in particular about ARRA oversight requirements;
- Most of the Council members have convened intra-agency and interagency working groups to examine the range of issues associated with accessing, spending, and monitoring ARRA funds. The Department of Commerce, for example, has created an internal working group for each of the eight funding streams under its domain. Secretary of Health Terri White has begun partnering with the State Regents to pursue funding for clinical health research and education. Secretary of State Susan Savage, Auditor and Inspector Steve Burrage, and Treasurer Scott Meacham have attended meetings in various sectors to provide overviews of the Act and report on their meetings at the national levels. Nonetheless, the need was expressed for some central or interagency entity that could assist individual agencies with common tasks such as applying for available grants;
- Some agencies expect to begin spending stimulus dollars very soon while others are awaiting further guidelines and regulations from federal agencies. The Department of Transportation and Oklahoma Water Resources Board expect to award contracts for highway and water enhancement projects, respectively, by mid-April;
- Treasurer Meacham reported on initial agreements between the executive branch and legislative leaders on some matters involving the use of stimulus dollars. Agreements have been reached on how to allocate funding in the Drinking Water and Clean Water State Revolving Funds between grants and loans, and what to do with enhanced federal Medicaid matching funds on current-year expenditures. Last week, the Legislature passed a resolution requiring agencies to submit a plan to the Legislature prior to spending any ARRA funds; and
- The members affirmed their commitment to making transparency, disclosure, and reporting a central part of this process, but they are a long way from being there. Office of State Finance Director Michael Clingman stated that a national organization is developing a uniform reporting website for use by Oklahoma and up to 20 other states. We are happy to see how quickly the Recovery Act website was created. We are hopeful that, in the future, Council member reports and agendas will be posted [update: Member reports have now been posted online].
The meeting adjourned without a next meeting date being set, but the Governor made it clear he expected the Council to meet more than monthly. As ARRA deadlines coincide with legislative budget deadlines over the next two months, keeping the lines of communication open will become especially critical.
Update: Governor Henry and the Department of Transportation have announced that contracts will be awarded Monday on the first $250 million of stimulus-funded highway projects.