Oklahoma’s purchasing director has decided almost $12 billion in applications for federal money under last year’s COVID-19 funding package for states should stay secret as the Legislature and Gov. Kevin Stitt’s administration consider projects for approval.
Included in the blanket exemption to the state’s Open Records Act are state agencies applying for funding from the American Rescue Plan Act. Oklahoma has $1.87 billion in funding to dole out, with another $1.32 billion going to counties, cities and other local governments.
The Office of Management and Enterprise Services’ purchasing director, Dan Sivard, made the latest secrecy determination in a Jan. 7 memo. That was one day after the federal government finalized rules for the Coronavirus State and Local Fiscal Recovery Funds program.
“The State Purchasing Director has determined that information received in connection with the receipt and/or distribution of federal stimulus fund is similar to an ‘offer’ and therefore such information is determined to be confidential and not subject to release from an open record request,” the memo said.
Oklahoma Watch earlier this month requested a funding application from the Oklahoma State Department of Health for its relocated public health lab and a new pandemic research center. The agency said the information was in an online “portal” set up by OMES to take applications and therefore inaccessible to the health department. When pressed for details, the health department sent the purchasing memo and referred further questions to OMES.
The memo refers to an exemption in the Open Records Act that allows public bodies to withhold “personal financial information, credit information or other financial data” submitted to them to be a qualified contractor. It also referred to a section of the state’s purchasing law that gives the state purchasing director authority to decide what information in a bid is confidential.
Caden Cleveland, director of legislative and public affairs for OMES, said none of the project requests are available for release. Almost $12 billion in funding requests have been received across 788 projects.
“These records have been deemed temporarily confidential as they are being considered as going through a procurement process,” Cleveland said in an emailed response to questions.
Typically, agency requests for appropriations or supplemental appropriations from the Legislature would be disclosed in budget hearings or during the legislative session. Cleveland said the requests for federal funds are hewing to a new process.
“The key differentiation is that this is a first-of-its-kind joint executive and legislative procurement process where the private sector and public sector are competing for a limited amount of federal funds,” Cleveland said. “In addition, the sheer number of requests is a big differentiator.”
He said the latest memo updates an earlier, less detailed memo from November.
The state worked with outside consulting groups Guidehouse and 929 Strategies to come up with a scoring process for awarding the American Rescue Plan funds. The money has to be allocated by the end of 2024 and used by the end of 2026. The Legislature created a joint committee and several working groups to evaluate applications for funding to address the health and economic fallout from the pandemic. Infrastructure projects like broadband improvements and water and sewer improvements are also eligible for funding.
“There’s a little over $10 billion in requests at the moment in terms of projects that have been submitted through the portal,” House Speaker Charles McCall said earlier this month at a legislative forum. “Those will filter down and the governor will ultimately have the say on those funds. He’s asked the Legislature to be involved, which we’re appreciative of. We’re not going to try to push out $1.8 billion in the next 12 months. You’ll see us take a very methodical look. What’s a priority to me is that projects are considered in all four corners of the state and throughout the state of Oklahoma.”
The process for the latest round of federal COVID-19 relief for states stands in contrast to the Coronavirus Relief Funds under the 2020 CARES Act. The early months of the pandemic featured states scrambling to secure tests, ventilators and personal protective equipment. Both the Legislative Office of Fiscal Transparency and the state auditor and inspector found irregularities with some of Oklahoma’s CARES Act spending.
Cleveland said the American Rescue Plan details would become public as the legislative working groups approve certain projects to be considered by the full joint committee.
“When approved projects are awarded for the contract, the information is at that point no longer confidential,” he said. “This is similar to any procurement selection process where all submitted information by potential contract award recipients are kept as confidential until an award has been made.”
Paul Monies has been a reporter with Oklahoma Watch since 2017 and covers state agencies and public health. Contact him at (571) 319-3289 or firstname.lastname@example.org. Follow him on Twitter @pmonies.