Arkansas Gov. Sarah Sanders has issued a new executive order 23-14 which has delayed and may possibly eliminate broadband expansion in eight Arkansas counties including Clark, Columbia and Hot Spring counties where the lack of broadband access is an issue in many rural areas.
In comments before the joint performance evaluation and expenditure sub-committee on Wednesday state Sen. Jonathan Dismang (R-Searcy) downplayed the delay and predicted the projects would be fully funded.
The Department of Commerce request, which called for continued funding for projects in the eight counties, included:
• A $5.2 million grant to Four States Fiber for a project in Columbia County
• A $4.5 million grant to South Central Connect LLC/Central Arkansas Telephone Cooperative Inc. for a project in Hot Spring County
• A $1.6 million grant to South Central Connect for Clark County
The executive order issued by the governor on Tuesday disbands two steering committees created by her predecessor to recommend how Arkansas funds from the American Rescue Plan should be spent. Money designated for state fiscal recovery funds was the $1.57 billion and $158 million was designated for the state capital projects fund. The unallocated amount in these two funds totaling $497.9 million will now be controlled by the governor instead of the steering committees appointed by former Gov. Asa Hutchinson. Sanders’ executive action to control these funds comes after just 15 days in office.
The eight broadband projects and $2 million in administrative funds would likely have been approved by the joint performance evaluation and expenditure sub-committee on Wednesday, but were held over due to Sanders’ executive order. In the order Sanders cited her fiduciary responsibility to completely review the outstanding federal funds in question and said her administration’s policy would be to consult with the General Assembly to make recommendations on how to distribute the funds within the boundaries of state and federal law. The order instructs the Department of Finance and Administration, notwithstanding Sanders’ policy, to consult with the legislature. The order states that:
• Arkansas’ dedicated federal funding through ARPA and IIJA as set forth in Executive Order No. 21-08 and Executive Order No. 21-19 shall not be distributed to any entity without further action by this administration and in accordance with Arkansas law;
• The Arkansas Department of Finance and Administration shall not consider any applications, which were submitted for APRA or IIJA federal funding prior to or after the effective date of this order, without further action by this administration and in accordance with Arkansas law.
All or parts of Clark, Columbia and Hot Spring counties are represented by Rep. Richard Womack (R) Arkadelphia, Rep. Justin Gonzales (R) Okolona and Senator Steve Crowell (R) Magnolia .