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Legislative panel looks at state's spending of federal COVID-19 funds
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Legislative panel looks at state's spending of federal COVID-19 funds

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OKLAHOMA CITY — A joint legislative panel on Wednesday held its first meeting concerning the spending of slightly more than $1.9 billion the state got through the nearly $2 trillion American Rescue Plan Act.

The Joint Committee on Pandemic Relief Funding will have a role in determining how state government spends its portion of the federal allocation. The committee will forward its recommendations to a group of six legislators and five executive branch officials who will formally score and send high-scoring priorities to Gov. Kevin Stitt, who will make the final allocation of funds.

The funds must be obligated by December 2024 and spent by December 2026, said Melissa Houston with 929 Strategies, a public policy advice, government relations and regulatory affairs consulting company that has contracted with the state on the project.

“The opportunity before us is not to be taken lightly,” said Sen. Roger Thompson, R-Okemah, the panel’s co-chairman.

It is an opportunity for the state to use an amount of money it has not seen before, said Rep. Kevin Wallace, R-Wellston, a co-chairman.

The amount the state is to receive does not include funds that go directly to education, cities, counties, individual assistance, broadband expansion and help for homeless people, among other areas, Houston said.

Tribal nations also received federal funding, she said.

The state funding is not to be used for items such as pensions, savings or settlement of legal judgments or to match federal dollars, Houston said.

The basic purpose of the funds is to respond to the negative public health and economic impacts caused by COVID-19, she said.

Houston said a project management office will be hired to oversee the projects.

Mike Fina, Oklahoma Municipal League executive director, said cities can spend their portion on such things as infrastructure, water, wastewater and broadband.

He called it a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity for cities.

Earlier this week, Stitt sent Thompson and Wallace a letter outlining his priorities for the funds, such as building a vibrant, innovative and broad-based economy and delivering more for all citizens.

“With this opportunity comes great responsibility,” Stitt wrote. “The projects and programs we fund today will impact future generations across the state.”

Related video: Biden signs $1.9 trillion COVID relief bill

Marking a year of loss and disruption, President Joe Biden signed into law a $1.9 trillion relief package that he says will help the U.S. defeat the virus and nurse the economy back to health.

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