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South Carolina May Invest Federal COVID Aid in Broadband

South Carolina legislators return next week to decide how to spend $1.9 billion in federal aid for the state’s response to the coronavirus, which has infected at least 20,000 people there and killed more than 600.

by Maayan Schechter, The State / June 18, 2020
Installation of fiber-optic broadband cable in rural Minnesota. (Bruce Bisping/Minneapolis Star Tribune/MCT) MCT

(TNS) — South Carolina legislators return to the state Capitol next week to decide how to spend $1.9 billion in federal aid for the state’s response to the coronavirus, which has infected at least 20,000 people and killed more than 600.

On Tuesday, the Senate Finance Committee adopted a lengthy amendment that senators next week will start debating on Tuesday and the House Wednesday spelling out how lawmakers plan to divvy out the federal relief that was part of the federal CARES Act legislation signed into law in March to help reimburse state agencies, colleges and universities, local governments and hospitals.

Through mid-May, more than $282 million had been spent by agencies, colleges, local governments and more for COVID-19 spending.

That figure is expected to climb to more than $632 million through December, senators heard on Tuesday.

Proposals include $500 million to replenish the state’s unemployment insurance fund and $222.7 million for the state’s Department of Education to hold summer academic recovery camps for students and to add an additional five days of classroom instruction.

“The education crisis for our students is just as dangerous if not more so than the economic crisis facing our businesses,” Sen. Vincent Sheheen said Tuesday, testifying before the Finance Committee of which he’s a member. “But this crisis could last a lifetime ... if we don’t act now.”

Lawmakers face limits on how they can spend the money.

The money can cover anything from COVID-19-related costs for tests, quarantine services and personal protective equipment (PPE) to payroll expenses for first responders and direct care employees and telemedicine, said Brian Gaines, with the state’s executive budget office in the Department of Administration.

Unacceptable uses, Gaines said, include covering any potential state budget shortfalls or the state’s Medicaid match.

Senators on Tuesday agreed to spend:

  • $500 million, to replenish the unemployment trust fund, which has so far shelled out $543.5 million or about 49% of its total since the beginning of March when the COVID-19 outbreak hit South Carolina and businesses shut down;

  • $270 million, to reimburse state and local governments, and college and university COVID-19 spending;

  • $222.7 million, for the state’s Department of Education to hold face-to-face summer academic recovery camps for roughly 25,000 students who completed Kindergarten through third grade, add five days of instruction to the school calendar from four-year-old kindergarten through eighth grade, reimburse for food services and pay for cafeteria workers;

  • $125 million, for a hospital relief fund through the state’s Department of Administration;

  • $50 million, for internet broadband mapping and planning, infrastructure and mobile hotspots;

  • $42.4 million, for the state’s Department of Health and Environmental Control for statewide testing and monitoring;

  • $16.8 million, for the state Adjutant General’s emergency management division for PPE stockpile and supply chain; and

  • $10 million, for the third-party grant administrator firm, Guidehouse, that will vet, process and audit the federal relief.

As part of the Legislature’s agreement to keep state government running past July 1, lawmakers agreed to sign a contract with an outside firm to ensure the vetting, reimbursement and auditing process of the federal relief was done right, senators heard Tuesday.

But state Sen. Shane Martin, R-Spartanburg, said he worried over the price given the small businesses and people struggling.

“I just worry that we’ve got agencies that we have some oversight and accountability with that could probably handle this,” Martin said. “I’m just trying to figure out why we’re spending $10 million.”

Guidehouse, the public sector of what was PricewaterhouseCoopers, was chosen through the state’s procurement process not only to vet the requests for money, Gaines told senators, but to work with more than 500 recipients of the money and help the state prepare for an eventual audit with the federal government.

“Well, it’s in the wisdom of those who made that decision, (they) felt like this is what we need to do,” said Senate Finance chairman Hugh Leatherman, R-Florence.

Most of the senators’ proposals match or nearly match what Gov. Henry McMaster proposed last week, based on a slew of recommendations that came out of the governor’s COVID-19 advisory group, Accelerate South Carolina, in May.

But senators decided to spend even more money to help expand broadband internet across the state, an issue that took a front row seat over the past several months as students and teachers moved all of classroom work to online forcing many families, particularly those living in rural areas, to find other alternatives to online learning.

State Sen. Gerald Malloy, D-Darlington, said lawmakers know there is a digital divide in South Carolina.

“We have to end up having an answer,” he said. “We have not had the answer yet.”

©2020 The State (Columbia, S.C.). Distributed by Tribune Content Agency, LLC.

 

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