Shelves of canned foods sit partially empty. Photo by Justin Sullivan/Getty Images.
Researchers with the Ohio Poverty Law Center and Advocates for Ohio’s Future have built an online tool to track how state and local governments are spending COVID relief dollars. They also have a few ideas for the nearly $2 billion Ohio has left over.
Last year’s American Rescue Plan Act, ARPA, sent more than $10 billion to Ohio — $5.4 billion to state government and another $5.3 billion split among local governments. Before that, the Trump administration’s CARES Act sent the state $2.6 billion.
The new tool breaks down expenditures from both measures, showing the state and local shares of ARPA funding in terms of percentage and dollar amount. On the main page, users can see a general view of appropriations by state agency as well as a local government’s biggest ticket projects. Clicking through, you can see a detailed, line-item of view of each individual expenditure.
State officials like Gov. Mike DeWine were critical of ARPA after Congress approved the bill along party lines.
“No probably not,” DeWine said in March of 2021 when he was asked if he would’ve voted for the measure.
He allowed there were elements of the package he would’ve supported, but didn’t elaborate, and he noted that since he’s no longer in Congress, he hadn’t studied the bill as thoroughly as he would if he had to vote on it.
“I wish that it would’ve been a bipartisan bill,” DeWine explained. “I think when you’re dealing with things like this it is better for the country if we can pull people together.”
But DeWine hasn’t hesitated to put those federal dollars to use. Almost $1.5 billion paid off federal loans for the state’s chronically underfunded unemployment system without raising taxes. The governor has also dipped into the fund for law enforcement agencies, facility improvements to avoid school shootings, and child care programs. He’s even flirted with using to to pay for the state capital budget in cash.
Kelsey Bergfeld, who heads up Advocates for Ohio’s Future, acknowledged paying cash saves on interest. But she suggested there are other, more pressing concerns the state should prioritize.
“Knowing that there are empty shelves at foodbanks everywhere knowing that massive changes and loss of health care coverage to hundreds of thousands of Ohioans is within our sight, we would argue that there are better uses for those funds than paying for the capital proposal in cash,” Bergfeld said.
All told, organizers are urging DeWine and state lawmakers to invest about $330 million in county job and family services, direct service nonprofits, and benefit outreach like health care navigators. The most immediate need, they argue, is a $50 million infusion for the state’s food banks.
“Costs for basic staples like milk and eggs are skyrocketing,” Susan Jagers of the Ohio Poverty Law Center said. “Food banks are fighting that same challenge as inflation has increased costs and decreased charitable donations. They’re struggling to meet current demand and need help now to keep food on their shelves.”
The food bank portion of their ask would represent less than 3% of the state’s remaining $1.9 billion in ARPA dollars. Fully funding their ideas would constitute about 17.5% of the remainder.
Going a step further, the researchers argue the remaining $1.5 billion or so could go a long way toward preventing lead poisoning, and point to a bipartisan measure, HB 587, interested in that issue.
They also point the Coalition on Homelessness and Housing in Ohio’s ask for a one-time $308 million investment in affordable housing, and the 34-point plan from DeWine’s own Minority Health Strikeforce to eliminate racial and ethnic disparities in health care.
Follow OCJ Reporter Nick Evans on Twitter.
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