OKLAHOMA CITY — State lawmakers Wednesday began the long process of deciding how to spend nearly $1.87 billion in federal American Rescue Plan funds aimed at helping Oklahoma recover from the pandemic.

In addition, Oklahoma’s 77 counties will split an additional $768 million. Its 10 largest municipalities will divvy up $300 million. Those include cities like Oklahoma, Tulsa, Moore, Norman, Enid, Lawton and Shawnee.

The remaining 580 Oklahoma communities with populations under 50,000 will eventually split $237 million — as long as they apply for funds through the state’s Municipal League. The state will have some oversight in the distribution of those funds, and Wednesday, lawmakers serving on the Joint Committee on Pandemic Relief Funding looked at a proposal that would allocate the money based on population size.

All funds must be used for projects that support public health response, improve water and sewer infrastructure, address the negative economic impacts caused by the COVID-19 pandemic, provide premium pay for essential workers or upgrade broadband infrastructure. They cannot be used to cut taxes or boost pension funds, said Melissa Houston, a consultant hired by the state to help ensure the money is allocated properly.

All funds must be fully allocated by December 2024 and spent by December 2026, which Houston said gives state officials plenty of time for planning.

Mike Fina, executive director of the Oklahoma Municipal League, is heading up coordination with local governments. He said the funding represents a “once-in-a-lifetime opportunity” for cities to do something that will change communities.

“We can actually spend the dollars on infrastructure projects, water and wastewater and broadband,” he said. “I don’t think you’ll see a lot of municipal dollars spent on broadband, not because we don’t want to, it’s because we have so many infrastructure needs in water and wastewater out there.”

Fina said his group is urging county governments to invest some of their federal money into improving broadband access across rural Oklahoma while local cities focus on improving the infrastructure needed to fuel economic development.

While the 10 largest municipalities and counties have already received their share of the federal funding, the vast majority of towns have not seen any.

State Rep. Brad Boles, R-Marlow, questioned why smaller communities, which badly need the cash infusion, are receiving their federal funds more slowly.

Fina said the smaller communities don’t have the finance departments able to handle sudden large influxes of cash, and the federal government doesn't have the data on smaller city budgets.

Janelle Stecklein covers the Oklahoma Statehouse for CNHI's newspapers and websites. Reach her at jstecklein@cnhinews.com.

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