By MARY SELL, Alabama Daily News
Alabama’s plan to use $400 million in federal COVID-19 relief money on new prisons has caught the attention of top Democrats in Congress who moved Monday to try to prevent the expenditure.
House Judiciary Committee Chairman Rep. Jerrold Nadler, D-NY, sent a letter to Treasury Department Secretary Janet Yellen asking her to stop Alabama from “misusing” a portion of the state’s American Rescue Plan Act allocation.
“Directing funding meant to protect our citizens from a pandemic to fuel mass incarceration is, in direct contravention of the intended purposes of the ARP legislation and will particularly harm communities of color who are already disproportionately impacted by over-incarceration and this public health crisis,” Nadler wrote. “…The ARP is a historic effort to provide urgent assistance in a time of great suffering. It should not be used to worsen our national problem of over-incarceration.”
Alabama Daily News first reported in July that state leaders were eyeing a portion of the state’s about $2.1 billion ARP funding known as “lost revenue” for prison construction. That means money the state would have collected through normal business had there not been a pandemic.
The U.S. Treasury Department set up a formula for calculating that amount of projected revenue that includes looking at the previous three year’s revenue growth. Any drop in that growth in 2020 could be considered lost revenue and it is up to lawmakers how to spend it, as they would most state revenue.
Alabama lawmakers on Monday began a special session to consider a prison construction bill. Besides the $400 million in ARP funds, the state would borrow up to $785 million to build two 4,000-bed men’s prisons.
Reached late Monday evening, Sen. Greg Albritton, R-Range, told ADN that he’s not concerned about Nadler’s letter.
“I don’t think there’s any danger or any problem,” said Albritton, who helped craft the prison bill that could get to the Senate as early as Wednesday. “I’m going to move forward.”
Albritton said the plan to use ARP was thoroughly researched.
“We believe we’re on solid ground here as far as interpretation (of the act), as far as the allowance and as far as the use,” he said. “That money will be used in the General Fund for funds that shoulda, woulda and coulda been used, based on Treasury’s own definitions.”
In July, Corrections Commissioner Jeff Dunn asked in a letter to the U.S. Treasury Department if prisons were an allowable use of the funds. An ADOC spokesperson Tuesday morning said the department is still awaiting a response.
Asked if the state had a plan B should the ARP money be ruled off limits, Albritton said he didn’t see a need for one.
Senate Minority Leader Bobby Singleton also defended the use of ARP money Monday saying it was within the scope of what the Legislature is authorized to do with the funds.
“I don’t see it as COVID money,” Singleton said. “There was a formula inside the Rescue Plan that allows states to be able to calculate their losses.”
Gov. Kay Ivey on Tuesday said Democrats are trying to “overstep our Alabama-driven plan.”
“I would suggest to the New York Congressman, and for that matter the federal government, that they worry more about avoiding the pending government shutdown and running the country,” Ivey said in a written statement. “The fact is, the American Rescue Plan Act allows these funds to be used for lost revenue and sending a letter in the last hour will not change the way the law is written. These prisons need to be built, and we have crafted a fiscally conservative plan that will cost Alabamians the least amount of money to get to the solution required…”
A total calculation of the lost revenue figure isn’t yet available from the Alabama Department of Finance, which has monitored all the COVID-19 relief money, but Albritton said the estimate is more than $500 million
House Bill 5 to allow the appropriation, along with House Bill 4 to allow the construction and borrowing, will be in the House General Fund Budget committee at 10 a.m. this morning. Both are sponsored by Rep. Steve Clouse, R-Ozark, who chairs the committee.
Clouse has previously said spending the relief money on better prisons will improve the physical and mental health of inmates within the ADOC system.