by Michael R. Wickline | Arkansas Democrat-Gazette
A state panel on Wednesday endorsed the state Department of Commerce’s request for $10 million in additional federal coronavirus relief funds to use as matching funds to obtain supplemental federal unemployment benefits
In a voice vote with no audible dissenters, the 15-member CARES Act steering committee approved this request from the department’s Workforce Services Division. The CARES Act is the federal Coronavirus Aid, Relief, and Economic Security Act.
The steering committee, appointed by Gov. Asa Hutchinson, previously approved a request to use $8 million in relief funds to match federal funds for supplemental federal unemployment benefits.
Commerce Secretary Mike Preston said the $10 million request is linked to the Federal Emergency Management Agency’s Lost Wages supplemental payment assistance, created by President Donald Trump’s executive order in August, to continue the supplemental unemployment benefits.
The original $600-a-week supplemental benefit was approved as part of relief measure that Congress approved in March. The supplement expired July 31.
FEMA required a 25% match from the state to participate in the Lost Wages program and the state was authorized by the federal government to use federal coronavirus relief funds for state matching funds as well as funds from the state’s existing unemployment insurance benefit payments, Preston said.
“For those first three weeks of payments, it came in at about $8 million … we ended up paying out as our match,” he said.
Preston said department officials originally estimated the state matching funds would be between $10 million to $15 million for the second tranche of federal funds for three more weeks of $300 a week in supplemental federal unemployment benefits.
“Now that we have a clearer picture of what that is going to be, the request today is for $10 million,” he told the steering committee. Hutchinson appointed the committee to recommend the best use of $1.25 billion in federal coronavirus relief funds.
“Even though it’s higher than what it was before, that’s because it’s a product of less people being on traditional unemployment insurance, so more of our people are going back to work in Arkansas,” Preston said.
In total, “$18 million is the high side of what we determined our 25% payment to FEMA will be after it’s all said and done,” he said. At this point, division officials expect to use $18 million of the $25 million in spending authority granted by the Legislative Council on Friday, he said.
Preston, who also serves on the steering committee, said the Workforce Services Division hopes to have the second tranche of supplemental federal unemployment payments “going out as early as the beginning part of next week.”
The steering committee also endorsed the Department of Human Services’ request to allow nursing homes to seek reimbursement for certain costs incurred from June 30 until Oct. 31.
About $19.2 million of the $45 million in federal coronavirus relief funds originally authorized for the program has been claimed by nursing homes for costs incurred through June 30, leaving a balance of $25.8 million.
“At the time we asked for this, I think we were asking for a number of things that we thought would get us through two or three months,” said department Director Cindy Gillespie, who serves on the committee.
“Since that time, obviously the nursing homes have had to continue bearing extraordinary costs,” and the U.S. Centers for Medicare and Medicaid has issued testing requirements for nursing homes, she said.
The committee also recommended the Department of Human Services’ request for $470,386 in federal coronavirus relief funds as reimbursement for sanitizing the department’s work spaces and offices.
The state’s unallocated federal relief funds now total $70.7 million, Department of Finance and Administration spokesman Scott Hardin said after the steering committee’s meeting.