Discussions on how to spend COVID money continue

CHEYENNE — Gov. Mark Gordon wants the public to remain engaged when it comes to spending $1 billion in aid from the federal government.

Gordon’s office held a follow-up virtual town hall Friday to review his recommendations for the use of the first round of American Rescue Plan Act, or ARPA, funding, totaling $534,000,000, which the state received in 2021. Wyoming will receive another equal sum this year.

“The whole point of this is to keep people engaged in what has been a long effort to date to complete recommendations for ARPA spending to the state legislature,” Gordon’s Policy Director Renny MacKay said during the meeting.

“The proposals came out of a strategy the governor called ‘Survive, Drive and Thrive,’ catalyzed by federal COVID relief money that came to Wyoming in 2021,” MacKay explained.

Looking for guidance on how to spend the money, Gordon created his “Strike Team,” made up of county commissioners, legislators, municipal officials and cabinet members, who came up with proposals on how to use the funding last fall and winter. The governor’s charge was to find ways to use the money to create a long-term return on investment, to be sustainable and not add to the state’s ongoing financial responsibilities, and to support stimulus over relief where possible.

“What we have to detail are some big proposals, and some significant proposals for the future of Wyoming,” MacKay said. Gordon released his recommendations, which are available in full online, in December.

Robin Cooley, director of the Wyoming Department of Workforce Services, said the governor’s recommendations for workforce and education development include $20 million for ARPA eligible proposals and $55 million for the newly launched Wyoming Innovation Partnership. Workforce needs, she said, include targeted efforts and apprenticeship expansion, funding for individuals not otherwise eligible for federal funding assistance and awareness campaigns and messaging efforts.

“We had a lot of proposals in this area that were excellent, but what I think we have really narrowed in on is targeting in our workforce efforts,” Cooley said. “We have a real need for health care workforce, we have a real need for childcare workforce, and how do we build that pipeline of workforce across the state?”

Josh Dorrell, CEO of the Wyoming Business Council, said the problems facing Wyoming’s economic development future are not simple, and so spending will be tracked for success.

“As we look towards the future of what the economy of Wyoming will be, and as we add value to our core industries and activate new sectors, we have to look at this from a different point of view, and not just throw money at certain areas,” Dorrell said. “We need to look at an adaptive, problem-solving style. With complex problems, you need to spend a little money to test some things out, and begin to invest in the areas that are going to work.”

The governor’s recommendations for economic development includes $105 million in “energy today and into the future,” for programs that will enable Wyoming to “jump start new energy sectors, and leverage federal funding opportunities.” It also includes $125 million for wildlife and outdoor recreation as an economic driver, and $28 million for economic resilience and growth. Finally, the governor aims to invest $200 million in broadband services from ARPA, infrastructure and other funding sources.

“This will allow us to understand where we are as a state, and map out where the critical unserved or underserved areas are,” Dorrell said.

Stefan Johansson, interim director of the Wyoming Department of Health, said that long term health improvements are at the forefront when thinking about how to spend the dollars coming to the health care sector.

“What should we use this opportunity to invest in, to try to prove? To try to demonstrate an outcome that might work for further investment in the future?” Johansson said. “That is what you will see proposals in the health area around, innovation funding, and to accept applications for a new way to deliver a service or a product that could generate or deliver an outcome for a specific population or a specific health outcome.

“That really will be our challenge, and the legislators’ challenge, to balance that with the risk of ongoing investments,” Johansson continued. “We know that is a tall order, and I think the governor has struck a good balance on both sides of that.”

The recommendations include $20 million for innovation in telehealth, rural health, mental health and behavioral health reform, substance abuse, longterm care, human services, digital medical and health information technology, as well as $7 million to expand the Suicide Lifeline to 24/7 operations, while supporting the initial transition to the 9-8-8 crisis intervention system.

When asked if there are any restrictions on saving ARPA dollars, MacKay said there are. When Wyoming receives its final payment later this year, the state will have received just over $1 billion. That money has to be spent by the end of 2026, but it can be used for providing government services to the extent of the reduction in revenue experienced due to the pandemic.

“That is a tool we have to have more options on half of the billion dollars. There is the possibility that over the lifetime of ARPA, with government services offsetting some government costs, that we could be able to put more money into savings,” MacKay said. “There is consideration of that, and the governor is proposing some going into savings at this time, so we have more options in years to come.”

MacKay said the governor has made his recommendations to the legislature, and the Joint Appropriations Committee is considering what it will bring to the full Legislature Feb. 14. Public comment will close on Jan. 14, and the JAC will vote on proposals this month.

“After we move through the session, and (if) the legislature leaves funds for us to consider, there will be discussion about what we do with the other half of these dollars, or what remains for future investments,” MacKay said.