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Ivey: State must be ‘smart’ about pandemic relief funds

By KIM CHANDLER, Associated Press

MONTGOMERY, Ala. (AP) — Gov. Kay Ivey on Tuesday urged lawmakers to use federal pandemic relief on longstanding problems such as broadband access and water and sewer infrastructure, but also praised Alabama’s legal effort to block the Biden administration’s vaccine mandates.

Ivey delivered the annual State of the State address to lawmakers on the opening day of the Alabama Legislature, praising the state’s economic recovery from the pandemic. She urged lawmakers to use federal relief dollars “to meet some of Alabama’s biggest challenges like statewide broadband connectivity, water and sewer infrastructure” and to invest in hospitals, nursing homes and other health care providers.

“We must be smart with this one-time money and commit to the people of Alabama that we will invest –- not just casually spend -– these dollars. I’ll say again that these federal dollars are just one-time funds. This is not free money,” Ivey said.

How to use the money will be one the major issues before lawmakers in the session that began Tuesday.

The governor asked lawmakers to make allocating the money an early priority of the session. The state came under criticism for using $400 million of the state’s $2 billion in relief funds for prison construction.

Ivey is expected to meet with legislative leaders on Wednesday to discuss funding priorities as well as whether to call a special session to isolate the issue.

The speech was shorter than in year’s past. The most fiery segment of the Republican governor’s speech came as she discussed efforts to challenge federal vaccine requirements. Alabama joined other Republican-led states in filing multiple lawsuits to try to block the requirements.

“From the moment the White House rolled out their scare tactic plans to try to force the COVID-19 vaccine on Americans, I assured the people of Alabama that we were standing firmly against it. And I’ll call this nonsense what it is: That is an un-American, outrageous breach of our federal law,” Ivey told lawmakers.

Alabama is seeing a surge in COVID-19 cases because of the omicron variant. As a precaution, seating was limited at the governor’s address. Masks were suggested, but not required for attendees.

Ivey proposed 4% pay raises for state and school employees, more funding for school programs to make up for lost learning during the pandemic.

House Minority Leader Anthony Daniels, a Democrat from Huntsville, said he was “underwhelmed” by the governor’s proposed 4% pay increase for educators. He argued it should be more to both reward educators who struggled through the pandemic and to combat the state’s teacher shortage.

“I think anything less than 5% is a waste of time, given that our educators have been on the frontline risking their lives and risking the lives of their families and making a huge sacrifice. That should mean something,” Daniels said.

The governor said she is also proposing resources for grants for low-performing elementary schools. Ivey is also supporting legislation to create a math task force that would recommend recruit and retain math teachers and to boost student test scores.

She also proposed $12 million investment for two additional mental health crisis centers, as well as other health services.

Ivey, who faces challengers in the May primary, spent much of her speech, touting the state’s economic recovery. She also highlighted past actions by her administration, such as the prison plan and road and bridge construction. She used the speech to announce a construction project to widen a section of Interstate-59 near Birmingham – spanning from Chalkville Mountain Road to I-459 near Trussville, from four lanes to six lanes.

“Clearly, with one of the nation’s lowest unemployment rates, Alabama is on the fast track,” Ivey said.

Ivey also used a portion of her speech to praise U.S. Sen. Richard Shelby who is retiring after six terms in the U.S. Senate. She said Shelby has “been instrumental in giving Alabama a seat at the table and has been vital in our state’s successes.”

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