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Lawmakers advance spending plan for pandemic funds

MONTGOMERY, Ala. (AP) — Legislative committees on Thursday advanced plans to spend more than half of the state’s available $772 million in pandemic relief funds for broadband expansion and water and sewer projects.

The two budget committees approved identical spending plans for using available funds from the American Rescue Plan. The approval, which came after almost no debate, puts the bills in line for floor votes on Tuesday.

The proposed spending plan so far appears to have support from Republicans and Democrats. The vote comes after Alabama faced criticism last year for using $400 million — nearly 20% of the state’s total $2.1 billion allocation from the American Rescue Plan — for prison construction.

The massive $1.9 trillion American Rescue Plan is providing aid to state and local governments to shore up finances, pay pandemic-related costs and invest in longer-term projects to strengthen communities.

Alabama lawmakers are meeting in special session on how to spend the $580 million remaining from the state’s first $1.1 billion installment, as well as $191 million allocated through the America Rescue Plan’s Capital Projects Fund.

The proposed spending plan would use almost 36% of the money, about $276 million on broadband expansion.
Broadband expansion in the mostly rural state has long been a goal for policymakers, but the cost has been prohibitive. And officials with the Alabama Department of Economic and Community Affairs cautioned lawmakers earlier this week that the federal funds are only a fraction of the estimated $4.6 billion it would take to provide “border to border broadband.”

The spending proposal would also use about $225 million on water and sewer projects. Lance LeFleur, director of the Alabama Department of Environmental Management, told lawmakers that his agency will work with the governor’s office on distributing the funds under a “needs-based approach.”

“We will be looking at disadvantaged communities. Often times these are in the Black Belt,” LeFleur said, referencing a high-poverty region of the state.

The proposal would also provide $146 million, to health care providers, including hospitals and nursing homes.

The spending plan would also steer: $79.5 million to shore up the state’s unemployment fund; $20 million to emergency responders including volunteer fire departments; $11 million to reimburse counties for housing state inmates during the pandemic; $7.8 million for the cost of reporting and auditing the use of the funds and $5 million for telemedicine.

While the committees advanced the bills with almost no debate, some have urged the state to address other needs.

Robyn Hyden, executive director of Alabama Arise, a nonprofit focused on poverty-related issues, on Wednesday urged lawmakers to consider investing money in the Alabama House Trust Fund “to expand everyone’s access to safe affordable homes especially during this global pandemic” as well as money in rural transportation.

Hyden said the organization applauded the use of the money for water and sewer projects. “We urge you to provide these funds with as few barriers and as little red tape as possible so the communities most in need can benefit,” she said.

The state is expected to receive the second $1 billion installment later this year.

“We will have to redo this at some point after the other $1 billion comes in,” Sen. Greg Albritton, who chairs the Senate General Fund budget committee, said after Thursday’s vote.

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