By the end of the week, Oklahoma lawmakers are expected to allocate nearly all of the state’s $1.87 billion in federal coronavirus relief funds when they come back for a special session.
The projects to be funded include millions for broadband upgrades across the state and scores of programs for water infrastructure, workforce development and training, as well as health care and technology upgrades. The state received more than 1,400 project applications totaling nearly $18 billion for its share of the American Rescue Plan Act money.
Sen. Chuck Hall, R-Perry, vice chairman of the Senate appropriations committee, said even as most of the money will be allocated, the Legislature still has an oversight function to make sure the projects get done right.
“It’s truly opened my eyes to the needs we have as a state,” Hall said last week. “We have scratched the surface of what we can do to impact the citizens of Oklahoma, but we still have a lot of work yet to do.”
Lawmakers called themselves into a special session in May to take control of the money and project vetting after complaining that Gov. Kevin Stitt was taking too long to act on several projects already approved by the Legislature. Lawmakers last met in special session in June to approve almost $70 million in spending for nonprofit relief, water projects, nursing education and optometry programs.
The state has until the end of 2024 to allocate the latest round of federal pandemic relief funds. The money must be spent by the end of 2026. Congress passed the American Rescue Plan Act in March 2021.
Broadband upgrades make up the largest category of spending under the state’s plan for the relief funds. Lawmakers plan to spend $382 million on broadband projects, although the details are yet to be finalized since grants will be pushed out through a new state Broadband Office. Another $167.6 million for broadband is coming to the state under a separate federal relief program.
Two of the largest requests by businesses for relief funding projects involved broadband. Flash Networks Group in Norman applied for $1 billion to build a statewide broadband network. AT&T Oklahoma applied for $600 million. (You can search applications here.)
Sen. Roger Thompson, R-Okemah, chairman of the Senate appropriations committee, said broadband upgrades feed into other state needs including education, health care and emergency response.
“That’s going to be a big-time change for us moving forward,” Thompson said last week.
The Oklahoma Water Resources Board said it identified more than $90 billion in needs for water infrastructure upgrades. The state received more than $2 billion in water-related requests under the pandemic relief fund. Cities and counties, which have their own shares of relief money to spend, have also funded millions in water projects.
Lawmakers have allocated about $190 million in water and sewer projects for approval in this week’s special session. They earlier allocated about $95 million in water projects.
“We know that no growth happens without water,” Hall said. “We absolutely need an investment in water in this state. It affects everything. It affects our lives and our economic development.”
Stitt hasn’t shown much enthusiasm for spending the latest round of pandemic relief funding. His administration was criticized by the state auditor and a legislative oversight panel for some misspending under the CARES Act in 2020 at the outset of the coronavirus pandemic.
Stitt said in May he hoped lawmakers wouldn’t use American Rescue Plan funds for projects driven by special interests and lobbyists.
In a news conference Tuesday to renew his call for lawmakers to eliminate the state’s share of the grocery sales tax, Stitt again questioned the relief spending.
“I’ll review all of them, but I just don’t think it’s the right time to spend $2 billion when we won’t at least cut grocery taxes for Oklahomans,” Stitt said at the steps to the Capitol. “Spending $2 billion for different special interests, different groups around the state, different projects, that doesn’t help a mom or dad going to the grocery store.”
Tax relief, the subject of a separate special session called by Stitt at the end of May, is unlikely to pass before the November election. Senate President Pro Tempore Greg Treat said Tuesday the Senate remains committed to its earlier plan to study the issue to make “serious strides to a long-term, sustainable plan to responsibly cut and reform taxes in our state.”
The governor did not sign a dozen pandemic relief bills after the Legislature approved them in June. Instead, they became law without his signature.
This month, Hall said he was frustrated by the continued slow pace of sending money to projects already approved by the Legislature.
The governor’s office said the Office of Management and Enterprise Services has been working with state agencies to get grant agreements in place to ensure the state complies with federal guidelines.
“Our expectation is that the executive branch will execute as quickly as possible,” Thompson said at a Sept. 20 meeting of the Legislature’s Joint Committee on Pandemic Relief Funding.
Legislation already filed
In May, lawmakers approved a series of bills with placeholder amounts for pandemic relief funding. Those special session bills are in conference committees, which will be amended with the new amounts for approved projects. That will allow lawmakers to finalize the bills and send them to the governor.
Lawmakers plan to meet Wednesday to Friday to debate and vote on the latest round of pandemic relief funding bills. Several bills are on the agenda.
The House and Senate have been evaluating projects throughout the summer in four separate working groups. Those recommendations were then voted on by the Joint Committee on Pandemic Relief Funding. Lawmakers whittled down the 1,400 applications to more than 60 separate projects.
“We heard from the public, industry representatives and others as the working groups carefully decided which projects to advance,” said Speaker Pro Tempore Kyle Hilbert, R-Bristow. “I am particularly proud that all areas of the state, both rural and urban, are receiving equal benefit with major projects. It is my hope that the results of this process will provide a benefit to our state for generations to come.”
Aside from finalizing allocations from the pandemic relief funding, lawmakers this week are also expected to work on details around a $250 million fund for rural economic development.
Some lawmakers are attempting to tie policy prescriptions to the pandemic relief funding. A committee substitute for House Bill 1007, filed Monday, would stop OU Health from offering gender-affirming care if it gets $39.4 million from the American Rescue Plan Act funds. The uproar over gender-affirming care has been stoked by vocal groups active on social media and on conservative news sites. OU Health’s Oklahoma Children’s Hospital has a youth gender-affirming care program called Roy G. Biv.
HB 1007 has funding to expand children’s behavioral health care at OU Health, including a three-story center with 72 beds and a neurodevelopmental/autism unit. In a statement, OU Health said the new mental and behavioral health facility was never intended to provide gender medicine services. It also said OU Health’s senior leadership team is planning to cease “certain gender medicine services across our facilities.”
“As the state’s flagship academic health system, OU Health remains committed to providing excellent, comprehensive medical care to all patients while following all state and federal laws and regulatory governing bodies,” the statement said.