Why Oklahoma is still sitting on COVID-19 aid funds

Six months after the end of a special legislative session that allocated nearly $1.7 billion, only a fraction of those federal coronavirus aids have been transferred from state coffers to agencies or other entities.

Meanwhile, the state has earned more than $21.6 million in interest from the $1.87 billion it received from the federal government under the American Rescue Plan Act.

Some lawmakers fear the delays, coupled with rising inflation and ongoing supply chain issues for basic materials, will result in higher than expected costs for many of the projects.

“I’m frustrated that these dollars are getting tangled up in government bureaucracy,” Sen. Chuck Hall, R-Perry, chair of a new Senate subcommittee overseeing the implementation of aid funds, said in a January hearing.

The Office of Management and Enterprise Services and its Grant Management Office are responsible for coordinating projects with various agencies and bodies. The latest snapshot shows that only 2.58% of aid project funds have been disbursed.

Senate Pro Tem Greg Treat, R-Oklahoma City, said he shares his peers’ frustration at the pace of the payouts.

“While I’m frustrated to this point, I have hope after seeing money starting to flow now,” Treat said in a March 13 news conference. “Some of these projects have seen their costs increase only because of supply chain issues and inflationary costs.”

In fairness, nearly half of the government’s coronavirus aid is going towards two major infrastructure needs in water and sanitation projects ($436.6 million) and broadband rollout ($382 million). The State Broadband Office and the Oklahoma Water Resources Board oversee competitive grant programs for these upgrades.

Hall said last week OMES had made progress since the Senate subcommittee first met in January. Grant agreements with government agencies are in place, but some of the sub-recipients have yet to request the money.

“They may not have completed the project engineering, or they may have internalized the reporting processes, or they may be evaluating inflation-related costs,” Hall said.

John Laws, the state’s chief financial officer, said earlier this year the federal government would prefer aid funds to be first issued by an agency or sub-recipient and reimbursed later. This caused some confusion for agencies that don’t have the cash flow to spend on large projects. OMES sent a clarifying email to grantees this month that it could also advance the money for projects.

“When the Legislature allocated funds for these projects, the expectation was that the funds would be allocated in the most expedient way possible for the projects,” said the March 3 email from state Chief Operating Officer John Suter. “Recently, legislators have raised some concerns with OMES about the pace of project implementation and disbursement of funds.”

Hall said OMES has provided nearly $42 million in aid to projects so far, up from $5.4 million in January.

“I’m still hoping that the money will start flowing very quickly over the next few months,” Hall said.

The expansion of the nursing staff was one of the top priorities for the financing of the Corona aid. Projects approved by lawmakers last year included $64.4 million for regional universities, community colleges and CareerTechs to expand nursing programs. The money flows through the Healthcare Workforce Training Commission, formerly the Physicians Manpower Training Commission.

Funding bills for this funding went into effect in September, but it took some time for the Commission to recruit staff and secure grant agreements to be ready to send the money. Administering nursing education grants is a new job for the commission, which in the past has approved loan repayments for doctors, residents and nurses in underserved parts of the state.

Janie Thompson, the commission’s executive director, said she had started reimbursement for projects that had applied. The commission meets monthly to approve submissions over $50,000.

In their special session last year, lawmakers approved dozens of bills to fund aid projects in water infrastructure, broadband, mental health and workforce development. They have issued a $95.2 million bill for the Department of Human Services to expand child care services, nutrition programs and help with the effects of domestic violence.

The House and Senate introduced a stripped-down $65 million version of this DHS bill in appropriations committees last week. The House as a whole passed House Bill 2884 later Tuesday by a vote of 77 to 5. It is now awaiting a Senate vote.

HB 2884 does not include the $30 million originally proposed for Tulsa’s Oasis Food Market, which would support comprehensive social services for communities facing grocery shortages. NonDoc has previously reported some issues with Oasis’ governance board and oversight. Lawmakers said they would withhold funding for this project until more could be shared about Oasis’ oversight.

“I think some additional review is warranted,” Hall said at a March 13 meeting of the Senate Appropriations Committee. “I think the project and the program are fantastic. I just would like more information on how they might handle the money.”

Oklahoma has until the end of 2024 to allocate the American Rescue Plan Act funds and until the end of 2026 to spend the money. The federal government provided states with a total of $198 billion under the act to combat the effects of the pandemic. Additional funding went to major cities, counties, and tribal governments.

Paul Monies has been a reporter at Oklahoma Watch since 2017, covering state agencies and public health. Contact him at (571) 319-3289 or [email protected]. Follow him on Twitter @pmonies.

Creative Commons License

Support our publication

Every day, we strive to produce journalism that matters – stories that enhance accountability and transparency, add value, and resonate with readers like you.

This work is essential to a better informed community and a healthy democracy. But it is not possible without your support.

Leave a Comment