From the historic hallways of the most beautiful state Capitol in our great nation, this is Senator Keith Ingram.
I’ve been appointed to a new 15-member committee that will determine how best to spend about $1.57 billion in federal aid.
The funds will go directly to Arkansas state government agencies. Schools, cities and counties will also receive relief funds, bringing the total to about $5 billion in federal aid coming to Arkansas.
The funds are part of the massive American Rescue Plan, which the new administration in Washington recently pushed through Congress.
One purpose is to help individuals and businesses that were financially impacted by the Covid-19 pandemic. Equally important, the federal dollars will be spent to prepare us in the event of another pandemic, or economic catastrophe.
Even though federal authorities have allowed us plenty of leeway in how we spend the money, I believe Arkansas officials will be very deliberate.
For example, I agree with the governor in that the wisest use of the federal funds will be for capital projects.
Other states have used one-time federal relief money to pay for ongoing programs. They learned the hard way that after the federal money is gone, the people expect the state to step in and continue paying for the programs that people have gotten used to having.
There is a consensus for expanding broadband service with a portion of the federal relief funds.
Arkansas had already begun providing high speed Internet to rural communities and isolated areas.
Last year we realized just how critical broadband is, when health clinics, schools and retail stores had to conduct business online.
Fortunately, we have more than three years to spend the money. That gives us time to plan.
In 2020, Arkansas received about $1.25 billion in federal relief funding through the CARES Act, of which $2.5 million is still available.
A significant portion of the CARES Act funds were used to shore up the state’s unemployment insurance trust fund, which took a hit when so many people lost their jobs due to the pandemic.
The new round of funding will allow Arkansas to beef up cybersecurity. The ransomware attack on the Colonial pipeline demonstrates the importance of protecting our computer networks.
The pipeline serves the southeast United States. When computer hackers forced it to shut down, motorists had to wait in line to buy gas in Georgia and North Carolina.
For too long we have neglected our infrastructure, whether it is bricks and mortar, concrete, levees, drainage canals, fiber-optic cables or electric transmission lines.
It’s tempting to balance your annual budget by deferring much-needed maintenance, but eventually you have to pay the piper. Nothing proves this more clearly than the crack that was discovered in the I-40 bridge.
Although public attention is now focused on repairing the bridge as quickly as possible, let’s not forget the need to maintain the old bridge and the interchange on the Memphis side of the river.
Just a few years ago we were debating whether or not to close the I-55 bridge in order to update the interchange. With I-40 closed for repairs to the bridge, thank goodness the old bridge is still open.
It’s another example of why elected officials should concentrate on day-to-day operations and maintenance. Because you don’t want the see your bridges and school buildings and pipelines featured on the evening news.
From the Capitol, it is always my greatest honor and most sincere privilege to serve you as your state Senator. This is Keith Ingram.