Grace Olscamp: That $1.5 billion is for Utahns, not private interests

Money is intended to rescue those who have carried the greatest burdens during the pandemic.

(Francisco Kjolseth | The Salt Lake Tribune) The Senate works in their final hours at the Capitol in Salt Lake City on Friday, March 5, 2021, during the final day of the Utah Legislature’s 2021 general session.

This week the Utah state legislature is likely to decide how to spend the $1.5 billion in discretionary funds the state received through the American Recovery Plan Act (ARPA), a $1.9 trillion stimulus package providing pandemic fiscal relief to states throughout the U.S.

An additional $1 billion from Utah’s share of this package is designated for county and city level discretion or programs.

The unassigned funds should be used to do what they were intended for — to help rescue Americans and our fellow Utahns who have shouldered the heaviest economic burdens of COVID-19.

This is not the time for private-sector special interest groups to receive handouts. As an environmental advocacy group, HEAL Utah represents public conservation and health interests that we would like to see funded, but we know that now is not the time. These funds need to be targeted toward helping individuals, families and small businesses who have lost ground during the pandemic by expanding safety net services, like housing, health care, education, employment, child care and job training.

The federal guidance on using these funds acknowledge this by saying that allowable uses include:

  • “Respond to the COVID-19 public health emergency and cover costs related to it, including assistance to households, small businesses, non-profits, and affected industries such as tourism, travel, and hospitality.

  • Provide premium pay (up to $13 per hour in addition to base pay, up to a $25,000 cap) to state, territory, or tribal government workers who perform essential work during the public health emergency, or provide grants to employers with employees who perform essential work (defined as work needed to maintain continuity of operations of critical infrastructure and other sectors designated by the governor as vital in protecting the health and well-being of residents)

  • Provide government services to the extent of lost revenue from the public health emergency, relative to revenues in the fiscal year prior to the pandemic

  • Make investments in water, sewer, or broadband infrastructure.

  • Funds may be transferred to private non-profits, tribal organizations, public benefit corporations.”

However, there are potential loopholes in the uses and restrictions of these funds that could divert them from addressing the actual needs of Utahns. For example, the affected industries term is not defined and therefore could potentially be applied inappropriately. Another loophole that we are concerned about is the transferring of funds to private organizations where there is less public accountability.

Counties and cities that will be receiving funding must prioritize the day-to-day well-being of their residents first and not pet projects. These funds will be harder to monitor, so it’s up to us to ensure that even local funding goes to those most affected.

Utah cares about its people, and in the last year its people have needed more help than ever before. The ARPA funding must go to those who have struggled to stay afloat and who will experience ongoing economic effects of this pandemic. Whether it be ensuring that people don’t lose their housing, that they can put food on their tables or that their family-owned restaurant can reopen its doors, we must put Utahns first.

Those who are worried about getting their delayed public and private projects funding need to be patient. Through collaboration with Congress and the Biden administration, and the passing of the American Jobs Plan, Utah can see additional money to help with infrastructure and economic development projects.

Now is the time to use this $1.5 billion to help Utahns get back on their feet. Larger industries, corporations, and even environmental advocates like us, can, and should, wait until those needs have been addressed.

Grace Olscamp

Grace Olscamp is a policy associate for the Healthy Environment Alliance of Utah (HEAL Utah).