The Arkansas Legislative Council on Friday approved the state Department of Commerce’s request to use up to $ 4 million in federal bailout funds to hire a consultant to develop a master plan for the implementation of broadband, after several lawmakers raised questions about the selection and duties of the consultant.

The Ministry of Commerce, in collaboration with the Ministry of Finance and Administration and the Ministry of Parks, Heritage and Tourism, was authorized to hire a consulting firm to formulate the plan.

The Commerce Department’s broadband office plan will provide short and long term goals and strategies, resulting in increased broadband connectivity in Arkansas, especially in underserved areas and rural communities. , the department said.

Cost Quest Associates, Deloitte Consulting LLP and Broadband Development Group have submitted proposals to become the consultant, according to the Department of Transformation and Shared Services.

In response to a question from Senator Jane English, R-North Little Rock, Parks, Heritage and Tourism Secretary Stacy Hurst said: “We anticipate that we will have a recommendation [for a consultant] which will be reviewed by… the executive subcommittee next week. “

Senator Kim Hammer, R-Benton, asked who will select the consultant.

Subsequently, Hurst said Administration and Finance Secretary Larry Walther, Commerce Secretary Mike Preston “and I are now in the procurement phase of discussions.

“We are reviewing the documents and, together with the experts in our department, discussing with the respondents,” she said in a written statement. “The three of us will make the decision on the most advantageous proposal. This decision will go to the SLA Executive Subcommittee for review. “

During the board meeting, Rep. Stephen Meeks, R-Greenbrier, questioned Hurst’s involvement in the selection process.

“It seems a little unusual because commerce is where the office of broadband is, so how and what is your role… broadband and parks don’t necessarily seem like a good marriage,” he said. -he declares.

Hurst said Gov. Asa Hutchinson, “in response to his opportunity with the US bailout for federal funds, has formed separate cabinet working groups.”

She said her role was to lead the broadband working group and that is why she is involved in the selection of the consultant.

(On June 29, Hutchinson established a broadband task force chaired by Hurst, a task force on water and other infrastructure projects chaired by Agriculture Secretary Wes Ward, and a workforce development and human capital task force chaired by Preston, said Hutchinson spokeswoman Shealyn Sowers.)

Hurst said the consultant’s contract will be with the Commerce Department.

Senator Missy Irvin, of R-Mountain View, said the Department of Parks, Heritage and Tourism was affected by the development of broadband in the state.

The Division of Heritage “has land all over the state of Arkansas, particularly in rural Arkansas, where there is no broadband coverage,” she said.

Irvin said she wanted the consultant to have “boots on the ground to collect this information.”

“It cannot be done by phone or email,” she said. “We really have to have these boots on the pitch, at town halls or whatever.”

Pro tempore Senate Speaker Jimmy Hickey, R-Texarkana, said many senators were reluctant to allow the use of $ 4 million in federal coronavirus relief funds to hire a broadband consultant “until let them know these boots are on the ground… and it all fits together. “

“I just want to make 100% sure that we know it’s going to be done,” he said, because lawmakers “want a statewide plan that will ensure we get the right results. “.

Hurst said the RFP requirements for a consultant include data collection and analysis of current broadband availability and community outreach.

“I’m confident we’ll cover what you’re talking about at this point.”

So far, the Commerce Department’s Arkansas Rural Connect broadband grant program has funded $ 279 million in grants for 132 projects. These projects were funded with $ 157.5 million in US bailout funds, $ 118.1 million in federal coronavirus, aid, relief and economic security funds, and $ 4 million in funds. state, according to state records.

Last week, Hutchinson set a goal for the Arkansas Rural Connect broadband program to provide an additional $ 250 million in grants funded by US bailout funds by the end of this year. In March, President Joe Biden signed the American Rescue Plan Act.

On Friday, the Legislative Council also approved three grants totaling more than $ 220,000 under the Rural Broadband ID program.

The grants are $ 75,000 to the City of Conway, $ 74,952 to Lead Hill and $ 72,500 to the West Memphis Utility Department, to conduct broadband business due diligence studies that are required in federal applications for grants and loans for broadband infrastructure, said Joseph Sanford Jr., director of the University of Arkansas’ Institute of Digital Health & Innovation for medical sciences.

The Rural Broadband ID program has received $ 2 million in public funds to provide grants, said UAMS spokesperson Andrea Peel.

So far, 18 applicants have received $ 1.18 million in grants, she said.

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