Georgia prepares to take requests for big-money COVID-19 relief grants

Georgia Gov. Brian Kemp has appointed three committees to consider requests for funding from the state's share of federal COVID-19 relief money. Kemp, however, will make the final decisions on how the $4.8 billion will be used.(Elijah Nouvelage/Getty Images/TNS)
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Georgia Gov. Brian Kemp has appointed three committees to consider requests for funding from the state's share of federal COVID-19 relief money. Kemp, however, will make the final decisions on how the $4.8 billion will be used.(Elijah Nouvelage/Getty Images/TNS)

Credit: TNS

Georgia is about two weeks away from taking applications from governments, nonprofits and business groups seeking a piece of the $4.8 billion the state is receiving as part of the federal COVID-19 relief plan.

Lawmakers, agency directors and lobbyists on Thursday listened to a presentation from Gov. Brian Kemp’s budget office detailing how the process will work once applications start coming in Aug. 1.

Three committees — focused on broadband expansion, water and sewer infrastructure, and ways to mitigate the economic fallout from the pandemic — were appointed by Kemp last month. The economic fallout committee met Thursday.

The state has already received half the money. It will get the second half next year.

State agencies, local governments, industries and nonprofits will be eligible to apply until Aug. 31 at opb.georgia.gov. Members of the committees — lawmakers and agency officials — will judge the applications in September.

Ultimately, under state law, Kemp will make the final decision on whether to approve committee recommendations, and grants are targeted to be announced in mid-October.

But that timeline may be optimistic and depend on the number of applications.

“This is the first time we’ve ever done anything like this,”said Kelly Farr, director of the Office of Planning and Budget. “This is a process that is going to continually evolve.”

This round of applications would allocate about $875 million of the $2.4 billion the state has received so far, according to the OPB.

Most of the committee members come from outside of metro Atlanta, which is also where most of the money in some areas, such as for expanding high-speed internet, will be spent. Of the 20 lawmakers Kemp appointed to committees, only two are from the five core metro Atlanta counties, and not one is from Atlanta itself.

Lawmakers have called for a transparent process with so much taxpayer money at stake.

But some lawmakers who were left off the committees noted that it took detective work to find out about Thursday’s meeting. A notice was posted on a page of the OPB’s website, although you had to know where to look and there wasn’t a link to the meeting, which was held largely virtually.

OPB officials said they will post applications when they come in, and the grants will be made public once they are awarded. They said meetings will be recorded and posted on the website.

The $1.9 billion relief package that President Joe Biden signed in March is sending billions to Georgia cities and school districts as well.

While a major economic downturn was expected from COVID-19, economies in some states, including Georgia, bounced back relatively quickly. The state this week announced a $3.2 billon increase in tax collections in fiscal 2021, which ended June 30.

Some states plan to use relief money to fill holes left by declining local tax collections.

Others are talking up proposals to repair aging water, sewer and transportation systems, to improve mental health programs and to create the infrastructure needed to offer high-speed internet to the millions of Americans who don’t have it.

The need for expanding high-speed internet access — particularly in rural Georgia — has been a hot topic at the General Assembly for years, but lawmakers could never come up with a way to pay for it without raising taxes and fees.

That talk only accelerated when schools closed down at the start of the pandemic and distance learning took the place of in-person instruction.

The money coming to Georgia can be used broadly for COVID-19 response, including making direct payments to Georgians, providing aid to small businesses, giving extra pay to “essential workers,” funding job training and placement services, assisting hard-hit areas of the economy such as the hospitality and travel industries, and paying for infrastructure projects.

Last year, funding from the federal CARES Act paid for Georgia’s response to the pandemic. Kemp also used $1.5 billion in federal pandemic relief money to shore up the fund that pays unemployment benefits after a record number of Georgians lost their jobs. That, Kemp said, kept the state from having to raise unemployment taxes on businesses. Some of the new relief may also go to prop up the system, if necessary.

Federal relief money that went to the Georgia Department of Education was used for $1,000 teacher bonuses, and extra federal money indirectly paid for state employee bonuses as well.