The CARES Act passed by Congress has a provision to give funds to state and local governments. Out of this, Oklahoma County has been given the onerous task of spending $47 million by the end of the year. The caveat being all expenses must be related to COVID-19. Any money not used must be returned to the federal government. While the county is undoubtedly receiving a plethora of self-interested letters requesting a portion of the funds, there are a few ways to spend the money to the benefit of all Oklahoma County residents. This should not be read to condone spending money just because it is available. Government officials must remember that the money they spend comes directly from the taxpayer, and should only be spent in ways that benefit all or most of society.
Oklahoma County could also use the money to give grants to small businesses that were forced to shut down or otherwise damaged by the government’s actions related to COVID-19. Small businesses could use the money to avoid layoffs, rehire staff, and stay afloat as the economy recovers. They could also use the money to fulfill any government mandates related to COVID. There should be rules limiting which businesses qualify for this assistance. Businesses that were allowed to remain fully operational during the shutdowns would not qualify for this assistance, mainly larger businesses like Wal-Mart. This program could be extended to non-profits as well.
The CARES Act allows for funds to be transferred from the county to school districts. Taking some of that money to help schools in Oklahoma County prepare for in-person education would be a good use of that money. Schools can use the money for additional cleaning supplies. The money could fund hiring and training a pool of substitute teachers that could fill in for any teachers that fall ill or are at-risk. Only school districts that reopen fully would be eligible to receive the extra funding. This will further incentivize schools to reopen. The reopening of schools will help parents get back to work, which is a further boon to the economy.
One glaring change brought on by COVID-19 was a rise in mail in ballots for the primary election. Given the state’s experience with State Question 802, where the mail-in vote was highly lopsided and uninformed compared to the larger overall in-person outcome, alleviating the public’s anxiety about voting in person should be a top priority. Ensuring proper precautions are taken at election sites would make voters more comfortable visiting their polling places, which would reduce the risk of tampering with mail-in ballots. Particular measures might include providing testing and protective materials for poll workers, having extra poll workers, and putting cleaning supplies in each voting booth. Ensuring the sanitary conditions will help secure the sanctity of the general election. This should be a top priority for Oklahoma.
Some of the money could be used to protect residents in nursing homes. Nursing homes house the population most vulnerable to COVID, the elderly who often have other maladies that make them particularly susceptible. Residents and caregivers should be tested frequently. Any caregivers that test positive should get partial pay and self-quarantine until they are no longer contagious. Residents who test positive should be moved immediately to a hospital where they can receive proper care. Money should also be used to ensure nursing homes are properly staffed and have the proper protective equipment.
While the connection to COVID-19 is less clear, an argument can be made that the County could use some of the funds to improve roads and traffic lights. Making travel less aggravating would help get people out of their homes and give a badly needed boost the local economy. The state of roads and bridges in Oklahoma is dismal, the American Society of Civil Engineers gives Oklahoma roads a grade of D and bridges a D+. A grade of D means the infrastructure is in poor condition and there is a strong risk of failure. With the influx of CARES money, a lot of work could go into repairing failing infrastructure in the county. The case could be made for repairing roads near hospitals which would free funds to improve other roads.
The county has received a windfall, but it must be careful to spend it wisely and in accordance with the principles of good governance. The federal deficit falls on Oklahomans and Californians alike. If Oklahoma County cannot use the money in ways that will benefit all its residents, it has a duty to return the funds. The primary goal in spending the money should be economic recovery, with a secondary goal of ensuring safety for citizens.
Spencer Cadavero is a Research Associate at 1889 institute and can be reached at [email protected].
The opinions expressed in this blog are those of the author, and do not necessarily reflect the official position of 1889 Institute.