Oklahoma officials release requests for billions in federal pandemic relief funds
After denying requests for them for months, Oklahoma purchasing officials have released details on more than 1,400 projects asking for billions in federal pandemic relief under the American Rescue Plan Act.
The project applications range from $141 million for the Oklahoma Pandemic Center for Innovation and Excellence in Stillwater and $220 million for capital improvements at state parks to $10 million for a Joint Operations Center for the Oklahoma National Guard. Others are locally based, like funding for a new public safety building in Norman, $100,000 for an annual dance festival in Tulsa and patio improvements for a microbrewery in Oklahoma City.
Former University of Oklahoma football coach Barry Switzer and his wife, Becky, requested $50 million for a national training center for their Ground Zero Emergency nonprofit that trains canines on emergency response. The Oklahoma Department of Commerce asked for $145 million for upgrades at the MidAmerica Industrial Park in Pryor to attract Project Ocean, thought to involve a battery manufacturing plant by Panasonic.
The Office of Management and Enterprise Services released the applications last week after first denying Open Records Act requests by Oklahoma Watch for the information. The agency originally cited an internal purchasing memo that treated all the applications as confidential under a single bid. It said the applications were “temporarily confidential” until the projects were approved.
Oklahoma Watch, aided by the Reporters Committee for the Freedom of the Press, filed a lawsuit against the agency in April.
An Oklahoma Watch reporter asked Gov. Kevin Stitt about the records request denial and lawsuit during a press conference on Thursday. Stitt said he was unaware of the lawsuit but thought the records should be publicly available. His administration released the applications a short while later.
Frustrated with the slow pace of project approvals by Stitt, the Legislature earlier this month voted itself into a concurrent special session to provide more oversight and vetting of the projects applying for federal pandemic relief funds. Though the regular session adjourned on Friday, legislative leaders gave themselves the flexibility to come back this summer or fall to vote on projects.
Senate Minority Leader Kay Floyd, D-Oklahoma City, said Friday that Oklahoma ranked 40th in the country for spending its federal relief funds.
“We’ve got that back on track now, at least that’s the hope, in order to get the money back into the Legislature in an appropriations process,” Floyd said. “I think you’re going to see more meetings and subcommittees, more projects being approved and the money being sent out.”
The money for the projects must be allocated by the end of 2024 and spent by the end of 2026 under the American Rescue Plan Act.
Almost a year ago, the Legislature set up the Joint Committee on Pandemic Relief Funding to oversee the process. It formed working groups to consider requests for funding in several broad categories under the law, including health care, behavioral health, workforce development, infrastructure and water and sewage projects.
The Joint Committee came about because the Legislature was dissatisfied with the way the governor spent money under the first round of coronavirus relief to states under the federal CARES Act. Lawmakers passed House Bill 2932 last year limiting the executive branch’s use of that federal relief fund. Several other states, including Connecticut, Indiana and Kentucky, had similar skirmishes over who has the authority to spend the federal money, according to the National Conference of State Legislatures.
The state’s Office of Management and Enterprises Services set up an online portal in October to collect ideas and requests for funding under the American Rescue Plan Act. The portal closed April 1. More than 1,400 applications were submitted, totaling $17.8 billion. The state has $1.87 billion to spend in the program.
More than $4.2 billion in relief funding requests came from state agencies. County hospitals and health departments requested another $356 million for various projects. Municipal governments put in more than 450 applications totaling $2.57 billion.
Meanwhile, large and small nonprofits requested more than $5.76 billion in relief funds. Large and small businesses requested more than $4.78 billion in funding across 150 applications.
Broadband projects accounted for the two largest requests by businesses. Flash Networks Group applied for $1 billion in funds to build a statewide broadband network. AT&T Oklahoma applied for $600 million to expand and enhance broadband coverage for more than 700,000 customers.
The largest single government request was a $648 million application by the Alfalfa County Rural Water District to update its drinking water system. The current system is more than 60 years old and has a waitlist for customers who can’t be added until improvements are made.
“(Alfalfa County Rural Water District) will add additional lines, well fields, booster stations and standpipes to extend and update the system with larger lines and pressure to serve the county border to border,” the application said.
Unhappy with some of the tax cuts and inflation relief programs in the budget, Stitt last week called lawmakers back to a special session on June 13 to consider two plans he announced in his State of the State address in February. He wants lawmakers to eliminate or reduce the state’s 4.5% sales tax on groceries and cut the personal income tax rate by ¼ of a percentage point.
Stitt vetoed budget bills that would have given individuals $75 and married people $150 in on-time payments to help with inflationary pressures. He also vetoed another bill that got rid of the 1.25% sales tax on vehicles.
The Senate overrode the vehicle sales tax veto on Friday, although the House brought both plans up on override votes but failed to give either a single override vote. Those actions highlighted some lawmakers’ displeasure with the governor’s call for a special session two weeks before the primary election on June 28.
House Speaker Charles McCall, R-Atoka, said Friday he expects lawmakers to add inflation relief to their own special session for pandemic relief funds. They can also consider changes to two large economic development incentives, a $700 million package to attract what is thought to be a battery manufacturing plant by Panasonic and a $250 million fund for rural economic development.
Before the Legislature adjourned its regular session, lawmakers met several times in a concurrent special session to set up the framework for later action on the pandemic relief funds. Each chamber passed scores of shell bills with placeholder amounts, then they amended each bill, rejected amendments from the other chamber and sent the bills to conference committees. The legislative maneuvers will allow them to keep the bills alive in the special session and come back later to approve projects for final approval by the governor.
The new framework means the federal relief funds approval will function much more like the typical budget process.
“Every ARPA dollar is going to go through a filed bill that is going to be debated by both chambers and sent to the governor for his signature,” Senate Majority Floor Leader Greg McCortney, R-Ada, said when lawmakers announced their special session on May 18.
Check out what state agencies, nonprofits and companies applied for federal coronavirus relief funds in this table.
Oklahoma Watch, at oklahomawatch.org, is a nonprofit, nonpartisan news organization that covers public-policy issues facing the state.