Budget & Tax , Good Government
Ray Carter | May 20, 2020
Stitt vows transparency for CARES funding, warns cities can’t use it for shortfalls
Oklahomans will be able to view how the state spends $1.2 billion in federal Coronavirus Aid, Relief, and Economic Security (CARES) Act funding by going to the state’s online “checkbook,” Gov. Kevin Stitt announced Wednesday.
“Our mission is to maximize all federal dollars available during this unprecedented time and to ensure this money is spent with integrity on COVID-19 related expenses, emergencies, and pandemic preparedness,” Stitt said.
However, the governor warned cities and counties that the funding cannot be used to simply backfill budget shortfalls.
“To be eligible, these expenses must be caused by COVID-19,” Stitt said. “They must have occurred between March 1 of this year and Dec. 30 and cannot have been in the budget as of the end of March.”
That indicates many cities and counties may still face significant budget cuts in the days ahead even as they receive CARES reimbursements for some expenses.
Lawton Mayor Stan Booker said overtime pay for first responders and the costs of personal protective equipment for those workers have been the greatest direct COVID expenses in his community.
But he said COVID’s indirect cost to cities has also been significant.
“Another big element in our ability to deliver those core services, especially associated with public safety and health, is the disruption of the retail industry where we’ll see less sales tax income going forward and the uncertainties associated with that,” Booker said.
Oklahoma towns rely almost entirely on sales tax for funding, and that tax source was severely restrained by the COVID shutdown of much commerce.
Even so, Stitt said the federal guidance is clear.
“CARES Act is not for replacing lost sales tax revenue,” Stitt said.
The governor said new hires, overtime, and new equipment purchased to address COVID-19 issues are all eligible for reimbursement.
Last week the governor announced that a bipartisan legislative advisory group would be involved in the CARES funding process. Stitt said he met Wednesday with members of the legislative oversight committee and those lawmakers will play a role in determining what requests qualify for reimbursement with federal funds.
“They’ll be there in the decision-making process,” Stitt said.
The governor has also formed the CARES FORWARD Team that includes experts from every major sector that has been affected by COVID-19. Those individuals will also be involved in the reimbursement process.
All cities and counties which have COVID-19-related expenses are asked to set up an account at governor.ok.gov/crfgrants to submit reimbursement requests and review the guidance issued by the U.S. Treasury.
The State’s goal is to formally begin processing requests from cities and counties for funding by June 1.
In order to provide transparency and accountability in the distribution of CARES Act funds, Stitt has also launched a new page on Oklahoma’s Online Checkbook where the latest reimbursements will be posted daily.
Director, Center for Independent Journalism
Ray Carter is the director of OCPA’s Center for Independent Journalism. He has two decades of experience in journalism and communications. He previously served as senior Capitol reporter for The Journal Record, media director for the Oklahoma House of Representatives, and chief editorial writer at The Oklahoman. As a reporter for The Journal Record, Carter received 12 Carl Rogan Awards in four years—including awards for investigative reporting, general news reporting, feature writing, spot news reporting, business reporting, and sports reporting. While at The Oklahoman, he was the recipient of several awards, including first place in the editorial writing category of the Associated Press/Oklahoma News Executives Carl Rogan Memorial News Excellence Competition for an editorial on the history of racism in the Oklahoma legislature.