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State lawmakers roughly outline priorities for spending $1.8B in federal virus relief funds

Oklahoma Capitol Restoration

State lawmakers are still grappling with how best to spend Oklahoma’s $1.8 billion in American Rescue Plan money, but a committee has outlined some priorities.

The new virus relief dollars can be spent on a broader range of things than those from the CARES Act.

Expanding rural broadband access is among the top items recommended by working groups of the Joint Committee on Pandemic Relief Funding. Rep. Logan Phillips (R-Mounds) serves on an expansion council and says they should commit funds to finishing a mapping project to show where new lines are needed. That would let the council award grants quickly, but there are a couple of obstacles.

“Two big pieces that are looming is the workforce shortage that we are seeing – about -22% unemployment rate in our line splicers and our broadband workers, so we must develop a workforce if we’re going to be able to expand this out – and creating partnerships for the collection and gaining of the raw materials that we need to build that infrastructure out,” Phillips said.

Initiatives to address a shortage of health care workers also emerged as a major focus. Rep. Kyle Hilbert (R-Bristow) said with 1,500 potential nursing students unable to get into Oklahoma programs, adding slots might be a good use of ARPA funds.

“And so, the encouraging thing to me is that tells us unlike some other professions, we may actually already have the workforce, we just need the slots to educate them. And you’re exactly right, that’s not going to fix the problem overnight. You open the pipeline, it’s going to take several years for them to get educated,” Hilbert said.

Other priorities working groups recommended including improving rural water and wastewater infrastructure, and boosting workforce training. Consultant Melissa Houston reminded lawmakers those are all areas to focus on initially.

“Let me clarify that. This is not the entire pot of money, $1.8 [billion] tomorrow. This is, let’s start moving through the process, what are the first things we need to talk about?” Houston said.

Relief funding committee Co-Chair Sen. Roger Thompson (R-Okemah) said with other funding streams to consider, their work isn’t done.

“So, we’re going to remain very fluid. There are no conversations that we’ve had about even closing the portal. We want to keep getting ideas in. We’ve got plenty of time to serve the people of Oklahoma,” Thompson said.

The state opened an online portal to collect spending proposals for virus relief funds.

Lawmakers leading the ARPA spending process have already said they don’t want to use the money for things that create recurring costs, though they may consider funding pilot programs the legislature could consider permanently funding later.

Matt Trotter joined KWGS as a reporter in 2013. Before coming to Public Radio Tulsa, he was the investigative producer at KJRH. His freelance work has appeared in the Los Angeles Times and on MSNBC and CNN.