By MARY SELL, Alabama Daily News
MONTGOMERY, Ala. – Alabama lawmakers spent much of their first week of the 2022 legislative session in closed-door preparations on a plan to spend about $772 million in federal COVID relief money.
Gov. Kay Ivey is expected to call a special session on the American Rescue Plan Act funds soon.
The special session would mean lawmakers would only focus on the ARPA funds without the distractions of any other legislation or priorities.
“We do not need this money held up because of debate on another issue because it’s an election year,” Merika Coleman, D-Birmingham said.
A spending proposal hasn’t yet been made public, but lawmakers have indicated broadband and water and sewer infrastructure and health care are priority expenses for the federal money that comes with spending restrictions and reporting requirements.
“We want to do with the ARPA funds things that are going to pay dividends, investments that we can make into Alabama long-term,” Senate President Pro Tem Greg Reed, R-Jasper, said.
He said there’s been “plenty of requests made on a plethora of different topics” for spending the money.
Senate General Fund budget committee chairman Sen. Greg Albritton, said Thursday lawmakers were “deep into” ARPA discussions, including what gets ARPA funding and how much. Sometimes debates over funding can get heated, he said.
“I thought we had surpassed the yelling stage, but I’m not sure we completely are yet.”
Albritton said lawmakers will allocate $580 million in ARPA as well as a separate $192 million capital projects fund.
A separate tranche of about $1.1 billion in ARPA will be sent to the state in May or June. Lawmakers will deal with that at a later time.
Sen. Chris Elliott, R-Daphne, said federal guidance on spending restrictions has only recently been released and legislation spending funds “largely for public health, revenue replacement, water/sewer infrastructure, broadband expansion and replenishment of the unemployment trust fund is still being drafted.”
“In the coming weeks the Legislature’s challenge will be to determine the amounts allocated for these purposes,” Elliott said.
Legislators largely skipped the typical first-week-of session meetings and took little action on bills this week, instead focusing on the ARPA discussions.
“You can imagine with this kind of money, everybody is at the trough,” Sen. Del Marsh, R-Anniston, said. “To me, we need to look at those things that should be state priorities first.”
He said his priority is broadband expansion. Several other lawmakers agreed.
“I think broadband will be front and center, I’ll be pushing for that,” said Rep. Randall Shedd, R-Cullman, whose district includes part of Morgan County. Shedd is a co-chair of the recently formed Digital Expansion Authority.
Sen. Larry Stutts, R-Tuscumbia, said broadband and water and sewer infrastructure should be priorities.
“Broadband now is to rural areas what electricity was in the 1940s,” Stutts said. “We need to make every effort to have it everywhere..so that’s my No. 1 priority.”
There is some discussion about spending funds on improvements to state parks and historical sites. Stutts said there are more pressing, immediate issues.
Sen. Tim Melson, R-Florence, makes a case for at least some ARPA spending on parks.
“We haven’t had Joe Wheeler (State Park) repaired since the tornado hit and it’s losing tournaments,” Melson said about the 2019 storm damage.
Fixing the park would increase tourism revenue in the area, Melson said,
He also wants the federal spending to be equitable and spread our among lawmakers’ districts.
“Everybody here has a worthwhile project that they think (deserves funding), so we’ll see how that goes,” Melson said.
“I’m going to support anything that has to do with health care, I’m going to support anything that has to do with helping communities do infrastructure like water and sewer, anything that has to do with housing assistance,” Senate Minority Leader Bobby Singleton said.
Singleton said it’s not that he doesn’t support helping parks, “but I don’t think they should be a part of this first tranche of money in the midst of this pandemic.”
Rep. Terri Collins, R-Decatur, said Thursday she was pleased with the planning she’s seen for the funds, some of which could be distributed through existing processes with Alabama Department of Economic and Community Affairs.
“The required reporting seems to keep us on track,” Collins said.
“I believe because of the broadband legislation we passed last session, the Digital Expansion Authority has developed a state plan and that puts Alabama ahead of the game,” Collins said.
Lawmakers in a special session last year steered about $400 million in ARPA funds toward new prisons and $80 million to hospitals and nursing homes.
Alabama Daily News reporter Maddison Booth contributed to this report.