Budgets, federal relief funds are top priorities as Legislature convenes

Budgets, federal relief funds are top priorities as Legislature convenes

By MARY SELL, Alabama Daily News

MONTGOMERY, Ala. – Passing state budgets and distributing a mountain of federal relief money appear to be first priorities as lawmakers ready for their third pandemic-ridden session, this one during an election year in which many want to promote their own priority bills.

The Alabama Legislature convenes on Tuesday.

“When you’re anticipating an abbreviated session because of an election year, the budget gets even more priority,” said Rep. Steve Clouse, R-Ozark, the House General Fund budget committee chairman. “But we have the added pressure of dealing with the American Rescue Plan funds and I think we’re going to move pretty quickly on that.”

Meanwhile, with the omicron variant of COVID-19 sending positivity rates to about 42% statewide and a full 50% in the capital city, House Speaker House Mac McCutcheon, R-Monrovia, said leadership will have to take the session “one week at a time.”

He also said masks would be required for members and staff of and visitors to the House of Representatives and its common areas on the fourth, fifth and sixth floors of the State House.

“…Because of the uptick in the COVID virus and discussions with the [Alabama] department of health, we feel like that’s a requirement we need to add,” McCutcheon said.

Meanwhile, House members are being asked to test for COVID prior to arriving in Montgomery if they think they’ve been exposed.  But test results won’t be required.

“It’s an honor system and asking members to be responsible,” McCutcheon said.

In the Senate, masks are recommended but not required.

House Minority Leader Anthony Daniels, D-Huntsville, was recovering Thursday from a second bout of COVID-19. This one was less severe than what he had in late 2020 and he credits that to being vaccinated.

Daniels said he’s heard from fellow Democrats who have medically vulnerable family members at home and are concerned about possible COVID exposures at the State House.

ARPA and the budgets

Lawmakers could appropriate about $580 million in federal American Rescue Plan Act funds received last year. Potential uses include expanding rural broadband internet service, sewer and water assistance, relief for businesses hurt by the pandemic and public health infrastructure.

Another $1.1 billion from the federal government is expected in May or June after this year’s session will have finished.

Sen. Greg Albritton, R-Range, who chairs the Senate General Fund budget committee, said money matters will be the highest priority of the session.

“In my mind, the urgency is to get money in the bank out the door,” he said. “So I think the ARPA, as far as a time matter, is going to be the primary focus. Then we can start on the General Fund and other matters.”

McCutcheon agreed and said it will be important to keep the ARPA money separate from state budget revenue.

“We’ve got to be careful that we don’t confuse these ARPA funds with the budgets,” McCutcheon said. “These are one-time dollars coming in. We’ve got to decide what’s going to be the priorities for those funds and then sit down and start the budget process.”

Daniels said Democrats would like to see the ARPA spending include more funding for health care providers and mental health services.

“One thing the pandemic has done is exposed the vulnerabilities in our health care infrastructure,” Daniels said.

He also mentioned help for small businesses and infrastructure, including broadband and more affordable housing for the low and mid-income.

“No one is short of ideas at this point,” Daniels said. “… Whatever investments we make, we need to make knowing that these dollars are not going to be available again.”

Special session?

There is talk in Montgomery about the potential for a special session within the regular session to address ARPA funds. This was done in 2019 when Gov. Kay Ivey called a special session at the very beginning of the regular session in order to focus lawmakers’ attention specifically on the gas tax and infrastructure plan.

A similar approach could be used for allocating federal ARPA funds so as to keep it from interfering with other issues. Senate President Pro Tem. Greg Reed, R-Jasper, said the possibility of a special session focused on ARPA “is a good discussion.”

“The idea of being able to separate the ARPA funds and the allocation and process of dealing with those is going to be important for the Legislature,” Reed said.

Only the governor can call a special session.

Gina Maiola, a spokeswoman for Gov. Kay Ivey, would not say if a special session was in the works but said the governor is stressing the need to spend federal funds wisely.

“The governor wants this to be an early priority for the Legislature,” Maiola said. “She has stressed time and again that we need to invest this one-time money, not just casually spend it.

“… The sooner these dollars reach the people of our state, the better.”

The General Fund and education budgets are expected to see revenue increases. Pay raises for teachers and state employees are likely, as are bonuses for retirees.

“Both state budgets look to be in good shape in terms of resources that are available to us,” Reed said. He expects a “continued conservative approach” to budgeting.

Meanwhile, the budget committees will be mindful not to “double appropriate” state and ARPA funds to the same needs.

“We want to make sure we’re not allocating resources from the ARPA funds in a place that is going to be covered by the state budgets and vice versa,” Reed said.

Individual priorities

Reed wants to give senators time and space to move bills important to them. He said that didn’t always happen in the issue-heavy 2019 session or the pandemic-altered 2020 and 2021 sessions.

“I want to be very sensitive to my Senate members, because they have issues that are important to them that are important in their districts, things that are of significance that we’ve not had as much time during this quadrennium to deal with some of those issues, as would have been normally the case.”

The session can last 105 calendar days, putting sine die in mid-April, but it’s common for lawmakers in a reelection year to finish their legislative business as soon as possible so they can campaign back home. The primary is May 24 and runoffs will be June 21. At least a dozen current lawmakers have primary challengers. And about two dozen legislators are not seeking reelection.

The House GOP Caucus last week rolled out an agenda that included bills to allow the concealed carry of firearms without a permit, ban critical race theory in schools and cut property taxes for small businesses and farmers.

Sen. Arthur Orr, R-Decatur, is drafting a bill focused on improving elementary students’ math scores.

“There are a lot of moving parts,” he said about work being done on the legislation.

Orr and Rep. Lynn Greer, R-Rogersville, are sponsoring legislation offering tax cuts to low-income Alabamians and some retirees.

The session begins at noon on Tuesday. A free resource for those who want to participate is the Legislature’s updated website at https://alison.legislature.state.al.us, which allows for livestreaming of multiple committee rooms and the Senate and House chambers. Ivey’s State of the State address is at 6 p.m. and will be aired live on Alabama Public Television.

Alabama Daily News publisher Todd Stacy contributed to this report.