Oklahoma considers billions in requests for federal Covid relief funds a secret

(OKLAHOMA WATCH) – Oklahoma’s chief procurement officer has ruled that nearly $12 billion in requests for federal funds under last year’s COVID-19 funding program for states should remain secret as the Legislature and Governor Kevin Stitt’s administration review the projects for approval.

The state’s general Open Records Act exemption includes state agencies applying for American Rescue Plan Act funding. Oklahoma has $1.87 billion in funding to distribute, with an additional $1.32 billion going to counties, cities and other local governments.

Office of Management and Business Services Director of Purchasing Dan Sivard issued the latest confidentiality decision in a Jan. 7 memo. It was a day after the federal government finalized rules for the Coronavirus State and Local Fiscal Recovery Funds program.

“The State’s Purchasing Director has determined that the information received in connection with the receipt and/or distribution of the federal stimulus fund is similar to an ‘offer’ and, therefore, this information is considered confidential. and not subject to release of an open registration application,” the memo reads.

Oklahoma Watch earlier this month applied for funding from the Oklahoma State Department of Health for its outsourced public health lab and a new pandemic research center. The agency said the information was in an online “portal” set up by OMES to receive applications and therefore inaccessible to the health department. When pressed for details, the health department sent the purchase note and referred further questions to OMES.

The memo refers to an exemption from the Open Records Act that allows public bodies to withhold “personal financial information, credit information, or other financial data” submitted to them for being a qualified contractor. He also referenced a section of the state procurement law that gives the state procurement director the authority to decide what information in a bid is confidential.

Caden Cleveland, director of legislative and public affairs for OMES, said none of the project applications were available for publication. Nearly $12 billion in funding requests were received for 788 projects.

“These records have been deemed temporarily confidential as they are considered to be subject to a procurement process,” Cleveland said in an email response to questions.

Typically, agencies’ requests for appropriations or additional appropriations from the legislature would be disclosed at budget hearings or during the legislative session. Cleveland said requests for federal funds are part of a new process.

“The key differentiation is that this is a unique joint executive and legislative procurement process where the private sector and the public sector compete for a limited amount of federal funds,” Cleveland said. “Plus, the number of requests is a big differentiator.”

He said the latest note updates an earlier, less detailed note from November.

The state worked with outside consulting groups Guidehouse and 929 Strategies to come up with a scoring process for allocating US bailout funds. The money must be allocated by the end of 2024 and used by the end of 2026. The legislature has created a joint committee and several working groups to evaluate requests for funding to address the health and economic fallout from the pandemic. Infrastructure projects such as broadband upgrades and water and sewer upgrades are also eligible for funding.

“There are currently just over $10 billion in project requests that have been submitted through the portal,” House Speaker Charles McCall said earlier this month at a forum. legislative. “These will filter through and the governor will ultimately have a say in these funds. He asked the Legislative Assembly to get involved, which we appreciate. We’re not going to try to pull out $1.8 billion over the next 12 months. You will see us take a very methodical look. What is a priority for me is that projects be considered across the state and throughout the state of Oklahoma.

The process for the latest round of federal COVID-19 relief for states contrasts with coronavirus relief funds under the CARES Act of 2020. The early months of the pandemic saw states rush to secure tests, ventilators and personal protective equipment. The Legislative Office of Budget Transparency and the State Auditor and Inspector found irregularities in some of Oklahoma’s CARES Act spending.

Cleveland said details of the U.S. bailout would become public when legislative working groups approve certain projects for consideration by the full joint committee.

“When approved projects are awarded for the contract, the information is no longer confidential at this stage,” he said. “This is similar to any procurement selection process where all information submitted by potential contract award recipients is kept confidential until an award has been made.”

“Oklahoma Watch, at oklahomawatch.org, is a nonprofit, nonpartisan news organization that covers public policy issues facing the state.”

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