By Caroline Beck, Alabama Daily News
MONTGOMERY, Ala. — In a rare Saturday meeting, Alabama lawmakers approved a $7.2 billion education budget, finishing the heavy lifting in a legislative session derailed by the coronavirus outbreak. They left the capital city, but expect to be back in the State House for special sessions on multiple matters later this year.
State House leaders also plan to call back lawmakers on May 18, should they need to react to possible amendments by Gov. Kay Ivey or a veto of the state General Fund.
Ivey and lawmakers have wrangled in recent weeks about who gets to allocate nearly $1.8 billion in coronavirus relief funding from the federal government. Ivey last week told lawmakers she was ceding all responsibility to them and wanted details on how every penny would be spent before she’d call them back for a special session to allocate it. The Legislature approved a General Fund budget that gives $200 million of the funds to state agencies to spend immediately, something she told them not to do.
The state constitution allows the governor to veto a bill outright or send it back to the Legislature with certain amendments for lawmakers to consider. However, only simple majority votes of both chambers are needed to override the governor’s veto.
Senate Pro Tem Del Marsh, R-Anniston, said depending on Ivey’s decision to veto or amend that budget, they plan on creating a proposed list of expenditures for CARES Act funding to fulfill Ivey’s demand in order for a special session to be called.
“An open process that everybody participates in was always the intent and will always be our intent,” Marsh said. “So we look forward to working with the governor to call us back to deal with those funds.”
Alabama Daily News last week reported that an early proposed list of expenses submitted by some lawmakers included about $300 million in COVID-related equipment and research and some money for various agencies. Also on the list was $200 million to build a new State House, an expense Ivey said was inappropriate given that the money is to be spent on efforts directly related to the pandemic.
Marsh said that building a new State House shouldn’t be on the top of the list for the federal dollars, but said if extra money were to remain, then it should be considered since the money has to be spent by the end of the year.
“If based on everything that we’re looking at and at the very bottom of the list, we’ve thought of every possible thing we can do based on the guidelines, and we could have built a new state house to have access to the public, and instead we sent $200-300 million back, I don’t think that would be very wise,” Marsh said.
House Speaker Mac McCutcheon, R-Monrovia, didn’t say if he approved or disapproved the building of a new home for the Legislature, but said state officials are still waiting on guidance from Washington on how to spend those dollars.
“At this point, when you start looking at those kinds of line items, there’s some question marks there whether it would even fit into the criteria,” McCutcheon said.
Senate Minority Leader Bobby Singleton, D-Greensboro, said he wasn’t aware of any wish list.
“I wasn’t invited to that meeting, so I don’t know anything about that wishlist,” he told reporters Saturday.
One of the items on the “wish list” was $10 million for a correctional facility in Perry County, which Singleton represents, to house COVID-19-positive prisoners. Singleton told reporters that more needs to be done to prevent the spread of the virus in Alabama’s prisons.
“I want to make sure our inmates are getting masks, our inmates are getting testing in there.”
Marsh said the legislative leadership believes COVID-19 funds should be spent on “one-time” expenses that would best benefit the state and said he plans to strongly advocate for broadband internet expansion.
Multiple special sessions are expected to be called once the matters over the General Fund budget are resolved, leadership said.
Legislation concerning prisons and criminal justice reform as well as mental health and liability concerns because of the pandemic are topics leadership said could be considered. It is up to Ivey to call special sessions and decide what priority topics are included.
Lawmakers moved quickly to pass the $2.3 billion General Fund and $7.2 billion education budgets since returning to Montgomery on Monday after a six-week virus-caused hiatus. The education budget cleared the Senate less than 24 hours after being in a Senate committee Friday and passing the House on Thursday.
The final vote from the Senate on the education budget was 31-0. Like the General Fund, the education budget now awaits Ivey’s signature. An Ivey spokeswoman said Saturday Ivey’s office will thoroughly review the budget.
The 2021 education is the largest ever, but its increase over the 2020 budget are only about 25% of what Ivey proposed in February, before the coronavirus caused business to close or reduce operations and decreased state revenues.
“We had to make changes and the revenues are going to be affected by the virus,” Senate education budget committee chairman Arthur Orr, R-Decatur, said. “One of my concerns is, what if we have a relapse in October or November (and businesses again have to be closed)?”
One of the items struck from the originally proposed budget was a 3% raise for educators. State employees aren’t getting 2021 raises either.
“We needed to fund continuing programs,” Orr said. “We hope we can revisit pay raises after we get through this period of virus uncertainty.”
Lawmakers cut nearly $20 million in proposed 2021 funding increases for early childhood development and the state’s pre-K program, one of Ivey’s priority projects. The program still got a $5 million increase to expand access to the award-winning program.
But Orr said he would expect significant changes or increases to the education budget in a special session because lawmakers are cautious of possible continuing effects from the virus.
“If we have a relapse and Gov. Ivey has to shut down the state, revenues would be impacted again,” Orr said.
Lawmakers allocated schools about $260 million for immediate use from the Advancement and Technology Fund. State law says schools and colleges can use that money for specific one-time uses, like maintenance, technology and security upgrades.
Orr said about half the fund was left available to lawmakers to appropriate later, should they need a cushion for declining state revenues.
McCutcheon said passing both of the state’s budgets in just under a week, along with many local bills, speaks to the level of dedication and hard work legislators were under.
“To do the work that this body did…I think you’re looking at a very dedicated group of elected legislators,” McCutcheon said.