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Constitutional amendment needed for county, city ARPA spending on broadband

By MARY SELL, Alabama Daily News

A proposed constitutional amendment clarifying that local governments can spend federal American Rescue Plan Act dollars on broadband expansion will wait until lawmakers’ regular session resumes next week.

That means it won’t get to Alabama voters until the November general election, potentially delaying when counties and cities can fully participate in broadband expansion.

Some had hoped for passage in the current special session and appearance on the May 24 primary ballot.

The issue at play is current constitution language prohibits local governments from granting “public money or thing of value in aid of, or to any individual, association or corporation…”

House Bill 2 and Senate Bill 3 filed in the current special session would change that language to allow municipalities to award ARPA grants specific for broadband expansion to public or private entities.

Rep. Randall Shedd, R-Cullman, had hoped to get the bill through the special session and on the May 24 statewide ballot. The special is expected to end as soon as Thursday and no legislation beyond the bill spending about $772 million in ARPA funds has advanced. Shedd said he’ll file the same bill in the regular session that will resume next week, but that delay means the issue will be on November’s ballot, not May’s.

“That would have been several months that broadband could have been expanded to utilize some of the ARPA funds that’s available to the counties,” Shedd, whose district includes a portion of Morgan County, said. “A number of the counties want to (use ARPA funds on broadband expansion). So we’re just trying to help them get in position to be a part of the broadband expansion throughout the state.”

Sonny Brasfield, executive director of the Association of County Commissions of Alabama, said he pushed for the bill in the special when he realized it could make the deadline for the May ballot.

The federal rescue plan gave about $2.1 billion to the state of Alabama, $951 million to counties and $779 million to municipalities. The APRA spending bill lawmakers are voting on this week allocates $772 million in state funding, about $277 million of that being directed at broadband. Much of that is expected to eventually be doled out as grants to incentivize internet providers to build “last mile” infrastructure where they otherwise wouldn’t because it’s not profitable.

Brasfield said that while state-funded grants could be awarded as early as this spring, they won’t pay for entire projects and counties want to be able to offer their own ARPA-grants.

“So, the timing is going to be a bit disjointed,” Brasfield said about the delay. 

“… That was the motivation of (passing the bill) in the special, the schedules just don’t line up very well if we have to wait.”

In order to appear on a ballot, legislation for a proposed constitutional amendment has to pass in a session that ends three months prior to the election, the Alabama Secretary of State’s office explained. This current special session is expected to end this week, still within the month of January. A constitutional amendment proposal from lawmakers passed within it could have gotten on the May ballot. The regular session that will resume next week will likely end in April. No constitutional amendments passed in it will get on the May ballot.

Any lawmaker can file a bill in the special session, but it takes a 3/5 vote to pass bills that are outside the governor’s “call” for a special session. For this session, the only thing in the call was the ARPA spending bill.

“We just thought that we needed to stick to the plan and only handle what was in the call,” said Senate Majority Leader Clay Scofield, who sponsored the companion bill in the Senate. “We’ll move it early on when we get back in the regular session.”

Lawmakers are also not acting in the special on a bill to clarify state tax code to guarantee Alabamians aren’t penalized for some of the benefits for families in the American Rescue Plan Act.

That’s not always the case, though. In last year’s special session on redistricting, legislative leadership allowed unrelated bills dealing with vaccine mandates to come up and pass.

Shedd and Scofield co-share the new state Digital Expansion Authority created to oversee high-speed internet growth.

Scofield said that even if local governments can’t spend the funds on broadband right away, they can make plans now for spending later in the year.

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