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Amended $1B ARPA bill could get final votes Thursday

An Alabama Senate committee on Wednesday modified a proposed $1.06 billion spending plan to adjust how some of the nearly $400 million for water and sewer projects can be spent.

Lawmakers are currently in a special session to distribute the last of federal COVID-19 relief money the state will receive. Final votes are expected Thursday.

As originally written, House Bill 1 dedicated $400 million toward water and sewer projects, to be allocated by the Alabama Department of Environmental Management.

Sen. Chris Elliott, R-Josephine, proposed an amendment in the Senate General Fund committee Wednesday morning to specify that up to $200 million of that could be spent on stormwater projects, as well as clean water and sewer infrastructure projects. Separately, $100 million of that would require local communities to put up matching funds of at least 35% to get the federal money. 

“This does two things,” Elliott told the committee. “One, it allows this funding to be used for stormwater infrastructure… 

“And then it further stretches this money out by requiring at least a small portion to require matching grants from local municipalities.”

The remaining $195 million is for high-need projects around the state and does not require a match.

The amendment was approved unanimously. Democrats had previously mentioned wanting some of the ARPA money to target stormwater improvements, which they say is an issue in larger cities. Sen. Linda Coleman-Madison, D-Birmingham, had planned to bring a stormwater amendment, but supported Elliott’s instead.

Elliott last month questioned ADEM director Lance LeFleur on how the agency was distributing the $225 million allocated last year for water and sewer projects. That money came from the first about $1 billion in ARPA funding the state received. Elliott said it was “not acceptable” that his fast-growing district in Baldwin County hadn’t received any of the water money.

Wednesday afternoon, Elliott told Alabama Daily News that he is concerned about municipalities’ ability to spend hundreds of millions of dollars on infrastructure by the end of 2026, the federal deadline. He said stormwater projects are typically easier and quicker than sewer and drinking water projects. 

“It’s an opportunity to expend this money in a different area, in a quicker way,” Elliott.

Other spending in the ARPA bill includes $225 million for broadband internet expansion and $100 million each for nursing homes and hospitals.

The bill was approved in the committee on a 12-0 vote, but three north Alabama senators — Arthur Orr, R-Decatur, Sam Givhan, R-Huntsville, and Larry Stutts, R-Tuscumbia — abstained.

Givhan told Alabama Daily News he was unhappy with the bill-crafting process, saying it happened before lawmakers got to Montgomery last week to begin the session. Then, the Legislature is expected to quickly pass it, he said.

“We got down here and the cake is already baked,” Givhan said. 

Givhan said he has specific concerns about funding for the Public Education Employees’ Health Insurance Plan, the insurance provider for state educators. It has had nearly $100 million in COVID-19 related expenses since March of 2021. But the ARPA bill allocates only $40 million to PEEHIP.

The amount for PEEHIP is also why Orr, chairman of the Senate education budget committee, abstained on Wednesday.

“As education budget chair, I have trouble supporting the legislation when it does not fully reimburse PEEHIP for its COVID-related expenses. That was the purpose of the American Rescue Plan Act, to reimburse agencies for their COVID-related expenses,” Orr told Alabama Daily News.

Stutts said he “is not sold” on the proposal. 

“I would like to see some of the money get to more individual people, not just major trade organizations,” Stutts said. Stutts said he’s voiced his opinion along the process, but wanted to make a point with his vote Wednesday.

House Bill 1 is expected to be voted on in the Senate on Thursday. If approved, the Senate would send it back to the House to concur with its changes. 

Meanwhile, the House needs to give final passage to Senate Bill 1, the proposal to repay nearly $60 million to the Alabama Trust Fund.

Both bills would then go to Gov. Kay Ivey.

Lawmakers’ regular session is scheduled to resume Tuesday.

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