Financial transparency and interbranch collaboration are important to Utah as the state focuses on equitable distribution of federal funds

By Christina Gordley

The American Rescue Plan Act of 2021 provided $195 billion directly to states through the Coronavirus State and Local Fiscal Recovery Fund. States are to use this assistance to:

  • Respond to the negative economic impacts of the public health emergency.
  • Provide premium pay for specific professions.
  • Replace lost revenue.
  • Invest in water, sewer and broadband infrastructure.
  • Provide assistance to disproportionately impacted households and communities.

States have focused on how to best use the funds and sustain long-term economic recovery since the relief was enacted in March 2021. Recently, the Senate Finance Committee requested the Government Accountability Office begin a review and assessment for oversight and accountability of how states have used the State and Local Fiscal Recovery funds to ensure proper use and transparency. Just as the impact of the pandemic has varied by state and region, the use of funds and the transparency surrounding spending has differed across the country.

Utah is an example of a state using several methods to provide financial transparency and interbranch collaboration for the strategic and equitable distribution of these federal funds. The Executive Appropriations Committee initially divided $1.65 billion of the state fiscal recovery and capital funds into broad categories.

Utah Sen. Kirk Cullimore described how “the buckets were established based on the criteria from the federal guidelines and regulations for items like public health response as it should, sectors of the economy that were drastically impacted more than others, infrastructure, things like water, infrastructure, networking and broadband, education remediation, access to justice and then housing and homelessness. Each of those buckets were the big, big things we were going to try to address. Within those buckets, we created seven principles that had to be met in order to spend these federal funds.”

Original Category AllocationAmount
(in Millions USD)
Revenue Replacement, Unemployment and Infrastructure$630
Water Infrastructure$280
Public Health Response and Remediation$205
Networking and Broadband$175
Emergency Preparedness$110
Education Remediation$80
Housing and Homeless$70
Impacted Economies$65
Access to Justice$35
Source: Utah Office of Legislative Fiscal Analyst May 17, 2021

Transparency and oversight

Cullimore described the use of seven guiding principles for allocating the rescue plan funds to ensure compliance with the federal guidelines and to achieve the statewide goals. The guiding principles established for the use of the state and local fiscal recovery funds were:

  1. Fall within the broad policy category.
  2. Do not finance a function performed by another level of government or private sector.
  3. Avoid a structural deficit or expectation for funding on an ongoing project with one-time funds.
  4. Inspire innovation.
  5. Provide improved government provision of service
  6. Avoid inflationary pressures by creating unmet demand
  7. Follow the established budgetary review prioritization and recommendation process.  

Each policy category was assigned to one of the appropriation subcommittees to review each project request for adherence to the guiding principles seek public opinion, and sometimes they were able to direct the project to be funded through other streams of funding in the American Rescue Plan.  

Utah’s allocation of these state and local fiscal recovery funds is available on various websites hosted by different state agencies. The legislature provides information in the Flexible Federal ARPA Dollars report. The state auditor provides an interactive dashboard data tool to view the distribution decisions of local governments and non-entitlement units. The Office of Planning and Budget hosts the Utah Coronavirus Stimulus Summary. Budgeted and expended amounts for each spending category and project are provided. The interactive display by Utah is a unique approach, allowing the user to select four streams of revenue from the Coronavirus Relief Fund, the Federal Emergency Management Agency, the American Rescue Plan Act and additional state funding budgeted for the same program. For example, grants to impacted businesses include $15 million from the rescue plan act, $64.3 million from Coronavirus Relief Fund and $213,0000 from state funds.

Cross branch collaboration and innovation

Cullimore explained, “the Executive Appropriation Committee is made-up of members of leadership, both in the majority and minority of both the Senate and the House. I understand that is a little bit unique to Utah, but it’s been very effective, and obviously, it helps.” For the infusion of rescue plan funds, Utah was not faced with filling holes in the budget and Cullimore felt that Utah was a unique place with established fiscal resiliency after years of building up the reserve funds and budget contingencies funds to prepare for an economic downturn like COVID-19 has the potential of presenting. To allocate the unexpected federal funds, he spoke highly of the usual collaborative budget process that is generally accepted practice in Utah and incorporated a lot of advice from the executive offices that were directed with spending the funds.

In a May 2021 special session, the Utah legislature appropriated $50 million of federal relief for the COVID-19 Local Assistance Matching Grant Program, a statewide competitive program created to leverage state and local funds for projects that will provide the most significant impact on rural and urban communities. The five-member application review committee included a cross-section of state and local leaders with one member each from the Utah Senate, House of Representatives, Governor’s Office of Planning and Budget, the Utah League of Cities and Towns, and the Utah Association of Counties. The collaboration among branches and layers of government provided inclusive and strategic planning to avoid duplication of funding. The scoring guidelines focused on the project’s potential impact on individuals and communities disproportionately affected by the pandemic, long-term benefits, innovation and measurable results.

As a member of the application review committee, Cullimore described how the matching grant program was aimed to incentivize local governments that had their own American Rescue Plan funding to use it to achieve regional and statewide goals for a large impact instead of focusing on individual local goals. He lauds how the Local Assistance Matching Grant Program was wildly successful and used $50 million to match local funding awarded to 36 projects for a total of $300.7 million impact throughout Utah. The largest portion went to water infrastructure projects that address a critical yet expensive need that local communities could not finance independently. In the Weber River Watershed Restoration Project in Summit County, a $1 million investment from the grant program ensured the $84 million project to address the rural water and wastewater needs. Using $1.5 million in Tooele County, it secured a large return on investment for a $19.4 million project for rural housing.

Equity and inclusion

The Multicultural Advisory Committee of Utah’s COVID-19 Response was convened to provide an inclusive lens for public policy development. The committee was composed of racially and ethnically diverse leaders from state agencies, non-profit and community-based organizations, faith-based entities, health care and education advocates and the private sector. Members engaged in strategy workgroups to identify gaps in the delivery of services during the COVID-19 pandemic. Lessons Learned about communications, digital equity, economic sustainability, food security, equitable access to health care, language access and housing services have provided strategies to be applied in all facets of government. Utah used the input to inform the allocation of several programs and initiatives to help achieve a more equitable recovery. Using the local matching grant program as a successful model, Utah invested $35 million to support a Redeveloping Matching Grant Program to incentivize local redevelopment and rezoning of commercial, retail or vacant industrial land for higher density affordable housing to serve disproportionately impacted communities.

Like many states, Utah is working to ensure an equitable recovery from the impacts of COVID-19 and has utilized funds from the American Rescue Plan to provide opportunities for investment in education, social services, housing, water infrastructure and investments.

This story is the first in a series that will highlight the use of American Rescue Plan funds by state governments.

How is your state using American Rescue Plan funds to make an impact? You can help The Council of State Governments tell your story. Email [email protected] to let us know how your state is successfully using ARPA funding.

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