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Sine Die: Lawmakers to vote on $1.8B coronavirus spending plan

By MARY SELL, Alabama Daily News

The Alabama Legislature meets today for its final day of the regular 2020 legislative session that was severely changed by the coronavirus outbreak. 

Gov. Kay Ivey has indicated she will sign the state’s two budgets – the General Fund and the Education Trust Fund – without any executive amendments. Today’s main action item will be a vote in both chambers on Ivey’s amended proposal to spend about $1.8 billion in federal coronavirus relief money. 

There had been a dispute between Ivey’s office and some in the Legislature over who should control that spending, but several senators on Sunday told Alabama Daily news they plan to vote for Ivey’s plan, which comes in the form of an executive amendment to Senate Bill 161.

The voting starts in the Senate this afternoon.

“There are several difficulties with this issue,” Sen. Arthur Orr, R-Decatur, said. “The law’s requirement that the money be expended by the end of the year. That means spent as opposed to merely appropriated. There is also the issue of what qualifies as an allowable expenditure under Treasury Department guidelines. All this militates for a flexible system for decisions to be made as we go along. I’m pleased we have now quantified the expenditures into different ‘buckets’ and believe that with the notification requirements that funds will be spent in transparency. 

“In sum, the amendment, while not perfect—and I don’t know that anything could be in these circumstances— is an improvement over where we were several weeks ago and I intend to support it.”

According to the Governor’s Office, Ivey’s amendment would split up more than $1.7 billion of CARES Act funding as follows:

  • $300 million to reimburse state agencies for expenses directly related to the coronavirus outbreak;
  • $250 million to deliver health care and related services to residents;
  • $250 million to reimburse counties and cities for coronavirus expenses;
  • $300 million to support businesses, non-profits, faith-based groups and individuals impacted by the outbreak;
  • $300 million for technology and infrastructure expenses related to remote learning;
  • $200 million for reimbursement of costs to the Department of Corrections incurred because of the outbreak;
  • $53 million for remote work and public access expenses incurred by state government, including the Legislature;
  • $10 million to reimburse court additional court costs incurred during the outbreak;
  • $5 million to reimburse the state’s General Fund for supplemental appropriations made to the Department of Public Health;
  • And up to $118,346,250 to be used miscellaneously “for any lawful purpose” with passage by the Alabama Legislature;

These funds would only be spent on necessary and appropriate expenditures, with any unspent money going back to the U.S. Treasury. Under the CARES Act, any funds left unspent by December 30 or deemed to be spent on unrelated expenditures must be paid back to the federal government.

About $45 million to $50 million of the federal money has already been spent on medical equipment and supplies, including ventilators, N95 masks, gloves, face shields, decontamination kits and hand sanitizer, Ivey’s office has said.

Sen. Larry Stutts, R-Tuscumbia, said the plan was reasonable.

“Those are broad, general categories,” he said. “We’ll have to look at the specifics of where the money will go, butI think that’s a plan we can support.”

Sen. Cam Ward, R-Alabaster, said the executive amendment was fair, keeps legislative oversight of the spending and “sets up guardrails on spending.” 

“I think the Senate concurs,” he said.

The amendment will then go to the House, where Republican leadership last week worked with Ivey. Support there is expected.

Most House Democrats are expected to stay away from the State House today as they did earlier this month over concerns about possible spread of COVID-19 in the tight quarters. Democrats have also said 2021 state budgets shouldn’t be approved until more is known about the virus’ impact on state revenues. 

House Minority Leader Rep. Anthony Daniels, D-Huntsville, told Alabama Daily News on Friday he was supportive of the amendment.

“All in all, I think it’s a pretty good list because it allows (Ivey) and her agencies to operate, to defeat the common enemy, COVID-19, as opposed to waiting for the Legislature,” Daniels said.

“I trust that the governor will do what needs to be done with the dollars.”

Daniels said he’d like to know how the Alabama Department of Corrections will spend the $200 million in Ivey’s proposal. 

“I’m not against the corrections’ dollars, but I’d like to see a plan from corrections,” he said.

Ward, the Senate’s Judiciary Committee chairman, said he’d like to see that corrections’ money, which has to be used on one-time expenses, spent on stockpiles of personal protection equipment, cleaning supplies and health care-related items, “so we’re better prepared next time.” 

The House and Senate meet at 1 p.m. today.

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