LITTLE ROCK -- Since the beginning of the COVID-19 pandemic, Arkansas has received billions of dollars in federal relief funding.
The PEER subcommittee of the Legislative Council has grown significantly in importance because it reviews how state agencies, institutions of higher education and public schools proposed to spend those federal relief dollars.
When the entire Legislative Council votes on whether or not to approve distribution of federal relief funds, the recommendations of the PEER subcommittee carry tremendous weight.
Legislators refer to the subcommittee simply as PEER, an acronym for Performance Evaluation and Expenditure Review. It monitors the financial and fiscal performance of state agencies and educational institutions.
PEER has reviewed and recommended approval of about $739 million in federal relief funds for public schools. Those funds are part of more than a billion dollars in American Rescue Plan that the state received for elementary and secondary schools.
At its most recent meeting, PEER approved authority for 23 school districts to spend about $65.6 million. Much of that money will be spent on bonuses for teachers and classified staff. The subcommittee also recommended that legislators approve spending authority of about $280 million for water, waste water and irrigation projects.
According to the state Secretary of Agriculture, about $135 million would be available for drinking water projects. Another $135 million would be available for waste water projects and about $10 million for groundwater and irrigation projects.
The Agriculture Department plans to accept applications during a 50-day period.
In July numerous local elected officials, engineers and managers of water systems asked legislators to approve funding of water projects. They referred to a survey completed last year that indicated the need for about 1,400 water projects costing about $5 billion.
They also expressed a sense of urgency caused by inflation. It takes a long time to complete the various stages of water and waste water projects, so it is important to get them started before inflation severely reduces the buying power of current funding amounts.
PSC Chairman Resigns
The chairman of the state Public Service Commission, Ted Thomas of Conway, will resign effective October 1. His resignation is important because he has been outspoken in his support of alternative energy such as solar power.
The PSC regulates utilities. Thanks to passage of Act 464 of 2019, solar power has grown in popularity in Arkansas. A Senate co-sponsor credited Thomas with helping to win legislative approval of Act 464.
The act resolved the issue of net-metering customers, such as solar power plants that generate their electricity, sometimes in excess of what they need. The excess power is transmitted to the utility's grid and the customer gets credit for producing it.
The value of that credit was the bone of contention. Utilities want to pay less and net-metering customers want to be paid more for the excess electricity. Electric companies point out that they have fixed costs beyond the expense of operating power plants, such as maintenance of transmission lines.
The fixed costs are shared by all classes of rate payers, such as commercial, manufacturing and residential customers.