Commentary: Let’s be wise about spending federal rescue funds on Utah’s important needs

(Rick Bowmer | AP file photo) In this Aug. 20 photo, the Utah House of Representatives convenes for a special session of the Legislature at the Utah State Capitol in Salt Lake City.

This is an important week for Utah. The Legislature meets Wednesday in special session to accept federal funds under the American Rescue Plan Act (ARPA) and may begin to allocate these funds coming to Utah.

The Utah Citizens’ Counsel is particularly interested in the funds designated for use by state government and public and higher education. We know that there are federal restrictions on the use and that Utah needs to make wise investments. We applaud the Legislature for desiring to spend the money on programs with long-term payoffs that will not unduly burden future state budgets.

The pandemic has revealed many areas of unmet need, and many investments are available that can have long term, positive impacts on people’s quality of life in this state. We hope that state and local governments will make use of opportunities to work together to maximize the impact of federal dollars and that public education and higher education institutions will do the same.

With this in mind, UCC offers its support for the following investments, many of which are already under consideration by relevant entities:

  • K-12 investments in school-building improvements (e.g., air purification & circulation in preparation for return to full in-person learning; air conditioning for summer sessions; hands-free fixtures like water fountains and doors to reduce health risks);

  • Investments in public health, especially in rural health departments, to enhance vaccinations and expand use of traveling nurses and physician assistants to support patients’ recovery from COVID;

  • Joint local and state investments to increase the affordable housing supply, the lack of which harms so many low-income families;

  • Increased pay for essential workers (defined in ARPA) up to ARPA’s maximum allowable of $13/hour;

  • Investment in broadband internet access with a goal of reaching all community centers and eventually homes across Utah, prioritizing underserved communities and rural areas;

  • Investment in secondary water metering to increase water conservation to combat drought, plus other projects that improve the efficient use of existing water resources rather than the development of new water resources;

  • Investments in preK-12 programs to offset learning losses (e.g., summer school, after-school programs, individual assessments, improved mental health counseling and health services, temporary staff increases to allow class-size reductions and meet pandemic-related needs for personalized instruction);

  • Creation of a pilot program to train paid or volunteer mentors to follow at-risk middle school students for the next three years—to support high school completion and identify possible needs of their families;

  • Post-secondary tuition waivers to allow lower-income students (many adult women, among them) to obtain child-care certification and licensure for 0-3 and preschool instruction, as well as other investments in post-secondary retraining and retooling to meet new job demands post-pandemic in such areas as technology, mental health counseling, & health services in K-12 schools;

  • Investment in an additional shelter for the increased numbers of women who have experienced domestic violence as a result of the pandemic and the family isolation that accompanied it;

  • Investment in health data infrastructure for identifying health needs, improving referral and tracking of those needs, measuring and analyzing health outcomes (including data needs in detention, jail, and prison settings);

  • Investment in new capital projects to shelter the homeless population (e.g., purchase of available hotels/motels to provide non-congregate housing temporarily or permanently) to reduce their vulnerability to COVID disease, illness, and mental health issues.

The COVID crisis has provided opportunities to address critical needs. Let’s not waste the opportunities.

Dixie Huefner, Susan Olson, Bryant Howe, Patricia Christensen and Michael Deily, the Utah Citizens’ Counsel Steering Committee.

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