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State Capitol Week in Review – September 25, 2020

LITTLE ROCK – Arkansas cities and counties that have been hit hard by the economic impact of the coronavirus can apply for help, after legislators approved the use of $150 million for relief grants. Cities and counties can apply online for expense reimbursements, with a total limit for the 499 municipalities in Arkansas set at $75 million. The total limit for the state’s 75 counties will be the same amount.

Cities and counties must provide documentation, to prove that the expenses are allowed to be reimbursed with federal CARES Act funds.

CARES is an acronym that stands for the Coronavirus Aid, Relief, and Economic Security Act. It was approved by Congress and signed by the president in March to offset the financial impact caused by the coronavirus pandemic. Arkansas is to receive about $1.25 billion in total from the act.

Legislators and state officials intend for the grant process to move quickly. The first deadline for applying is October 30, with another deadline on November 16 for applications that may be incomplete.

The Legislative Council approved the use of $150 million in CARES Act funds for relief for cities and counties. The Council is the legislative body that monitors state government operations in the interim between sessions.

During discussion, legislators confirmed from the officials who will administer the grants that cities can be reimbursed for the cost of helping residents with utility bills. The state Department of Finance and Administration will disburse the grants to cities and counties.

Many utilities have not cut off service for non-payment of bills, because of policies enacted to help people who lost their jobs or businesses due to the coronavirus.

An official of DFA said that grants would reimburse local governments for rental assistance, mortgage assistance and food banks.

A related effort is in the works to help the Arkansas tourism industry. The state Parks, Heritage and Tourism Department is writing a list of allowable reimbursements that will provide financial help for the hospitality and service industries.

Senators on the Legislative Council said tourism has been especially hard hit by the pandemic. They are working to see that some CARES Act relief is disbursed to local convention and visitors bureaus, because those local agencies promote business in local hotels, restaurants, gift shops and tourist destinations.

Higher Education Enrollment Declines

An indicator of how the coronavirus is affecting Arkansas is that only three public institutions of higher education reported an increase in enrollment in undergraduates for the fall semester. They are the University of Arkansas at Pine Bluff (10.5 percent), the University of Arkansas for Medical Sciences (29 percent) and Southern Arkansas University Tech at Camden (2.1 percent).

The enrollment figures don’t account for students in nearby high schools taking concurrent classes. Another factor in the enrollment decline is that colleges and universities have changed their focus to retaining and graduating students, rather than boosting enrollment numbers. Over the past five years, the number of students in higher education in Arkansas has dropped 13.2 percent, from 115,468 to 100,241


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