By CAROLINE BECK, Alabama Daily News
MONTGOMERY, Ala. — Alabama’s elected leaders have approved a plan to spend $1.8 billion in federal coronavirus relief money, despite Senate leaders saying they were left out of the process prior to their vote on Monday.
“Some meetings took place in our absence that we weren’t involved in and I thought that was inappropriate,” Senate Pro Tem Del Marsh, R-Anniston, told reporters.
House Speaker Mac McCutcheon, R-Monrovia, said House members were worried about slowing down the process of passing the state budgets and getting relief funds to those who needed them immediately, but there was no nefarious intent behind their meetings with Ivey last week.
“The House was willing to step up and bring suggestions to the governor,” McCutcheon said on Monday, “We were not working against the Senate. We were not working in secret. We were just doing our job as the House body.”
Monday was the final day of the 2020 regular legislative session in which many of the issues prominent in February were tabled in March as the session was delayed six weeks and state revenues fell in response to stay-home orders.
There had been a dispute in recent weeks between Ivey’s office and some in the Legislature over who should control the relief spending from Congress, but several senators on Sunday told Alabama Daily news they would vote for Ivey’s plan, which comes in the form of an executive amendment to Senate Bill 161.
The Senate approved the executive amendment 30-1, the House later approved it 73-1. The lone no vote in the House, Rep. Rod Scott, D-Fairfield, later said he’d intended to vote yes.
Marsh also said that trust between the governor and the Senate will have to be “rebuilt” moving forward during future discussion of COVID-19 relief funds and spending on new prisons.
“In this process, you have to have trust, and there’s going to have to be a lot of trust rebuilt because the Senate feels that they were ignored by the governor and the House and I can tell you that’s problematic going forward,” Marsh said.
Ivey said in an emailed statement on Monday that her “friendly” amendment was to ensure CAREs Act funding was made available immediately to those who needed it the most.
“Our cities, counties and state, as well as places like our nursing homes, hospitals, schools and colleges have incurred many legitimate expenses because of COVID-19,” Ivey said. “I thank the members of the Alabama Legislature for supporting this amendment and for ensuring this money helps the people of Alabama who have been harmed by this disease.”
Marsh said as of now, the relationship between the governor and the Legislature is “strained” and that the fighting between the two branches over the proposed “wish list” later called out by the governor, further slowing budget passage, was uncalled for.
“I feel like the governor truly threw members of the Legislature under the bus under tough times for no reason,” Marsh said.
Several officials have said it will be a challenge to get the money spent by the Dec. 30 deadline.
House General Fund budget committee chairman Rep. Steve Clouse, R-Ozark, said Monday he was pleased an agreement was finally reached.
“I’m just sorry everything got sideways with everyone the last three weeks,” Clouse said.
And even with the executive amendment passed, Clouse said he’s not confident that state agencies will be able to expend all the money by the end-of-year deadline.
“I think there are a whole lot of hoops to jump through, documentation to do,” Clouse said. “If there is not some more guidance and loosening of the strings, we may not be able to spend it all.”
Marsh said he and the two Senate budget chairmen will be on a small committee with Ivey to decide on any major future changes to spending the relief funds.
Senate Democrats supported Ivey’s executive amendment even though they said they were left out of the discussions. Senate Minority Leader Bobby Singleton, D-Greensboro, called on her to add minority representation to that small committee.
“It is our people in the African-American community that are dying disproportionately more than anyone else from this COVID disease,” Singleton told reporters. “We want to make sure that money is spent in places that are gonna help not just our people but all Alabamians.”
About 26% of Alabamians are black, but nearly 40% of the nearly 12,000 confirmed COVID-19 cases in the state as of Monday afternoon were in black Alabamians, according to the Alabama Department of Public Health. Black people account for about 44% of the nearly 500 deaths statewide.
Meanwhile, Singleton said not enough testing is being done in rural areas like his district and rural hospitals need more help.
“We got to do better than what we’re doing to make sure people in rural communities are getting tested,” Singleton said, adding that at least 20% of the state should be tested.
Sen. Arthur Orr, R-Decatur, said prior to the vote on the amendment, said spending the relief funds and not just simply appropriating them before the set deadline will be a difficult process.
“There is also the issue of what qualifies as an allowable expenditure under Treasury Department guidelines,” Orr said. “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.”
Sen. Chris Elliott, R-Fairhope, was the lone “no” vote in the Senate.
“The Alabama Legislature’s constitutional responsibility is to appropriate public funds for specific budgeted purposes,” he said later on social media. “I could not in good conscience vote to appropriate hundreds and hundreds of millions of dollars into individual “buckets” with only vague descriptions and without any specific purpose whatsoever.”
Most House Democrats largely stayed away from the State House Monday 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.”