We have one chance to spend $1.1B right

The $1.1 billion in American Rescue Plan Act dollars that Rhode Island is receiving from the federal government is once-in-a-generation funding that can improve the future for many in our state, especially those most impacted by the pandemic. And these funds are the “people’s money,” paid for by our tax dollars. Spending them wisely demands that we take the time to thoughtfully allocate the funds to meet community need and that we commit to oversight and accountability over time.

As the state’s community foundation, earlier this year the Rhode Island Foundation launched “Make It Happen: Investing for Rhode Island’s Future,” aimed at making transformative, equitable and sustainable recommendations to state leaders as they determine how best to spend ARPA’s state fiscal recovery funds. The process was six months long, guided by four principles – equity, sustainability, impact and process – and included rigorous research, analysis and robust public input all done in partnership with the Economic Progress Institute, Rhode Island Public Expenditure Council and a diverse, experienced 15-member steering committee. We recently issued a report containing spending recommendations, and state leaders will now determine the allocation of ARPA funds.

The report recommends allocating $405 million for housing, $255 million for behavioral health, $205 million for workforce development, $100 million for small businesses, $50 million for neighborhood trusts, and $50 million for immediate use. Under each topic area, there are specific allocations. Most importantly, it takes into account the thoughtful input we received from Rhode Islanders via online submissions, interviews, focus groups and community sessions – reflecting back on ways to meet of-the-moment needs and address challenges that have plagued the state for decades. The specific programs and allocations within each of the recommended spending areas focus on those impacted the most by the pandemic, aiming to address the root causes of systemic inequalities that both predated, and were exacerbated by, COVID-19.

The state will need to develop new muscles in order to successfully invest these dollars.

As we were developing these recommendations, we quickly identified implementation, capacity, accountability and oversight as integral to leveraging ARPA funds. In many cases, state and local agencies, as well as community partners, do not currently have the capacity to manage implementation for programs of this magnitude. Within the “Make It Happen” recommendations there is funding to do planning and build capacity to maximize success. We also recommend that an office be created, reporting directly to the governor, with the authority to oversee the spending of all ARPA dollars and additional federal stimulus and pandemic recovery-related funds.

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For example, there are funds earmarked specifically for cities and towns, public education, higher education, capital projects and more – and there is the possibility for even more resources from the federal government in the coming months. It is critical that we coordinate across categories to maximize impact for residents of our state. The critical responsibilities of the office should include ensuring that funds are expeditiously used, oversight of expenditures and tracking progress against clear goals on a publicly accessible dashboard. The office would also facilitate public input and community oversight opportunities and would work collaboratively with the General Assembly, regularly reporting progress to lawmakers.

We cannot be sitting here in two years asking, “Why has so little funding actually been put to use?” And we cannot be sitting here in five years asking, “Whatever happened to that billion dollars?”

We firmly believe that the recommendations contained in the “Make It Happen: Investing for Rhode Island’s Future” report are consistent with federal guidelines, based on solid analysis and research, actionable and reflect diverse community input. The state will need to develop new muscles in order to successfully invest these dollars, as well as any additional federal funding that materializes. We stand ready to collaborate as needed to maximize this incredible opportunity.

Neil D. Steinberg is CEO and president of the Rhode Island Foundation.