Senate leaders seek COVID-19 money for broadband

Senate leaders seek COVID-19 money for broadband

Senator Del Marsh presents a resolution, in a nearly empty Senate Chamber with barely a quorum present, allowing an adjournment until April 28, in Montgomery, Ala., on Tuesday March 31, 2020. (Mickey Welsh/The Montgomery Advertiser via AP)

BY KIM CHANDLER Associated Press

MONTGOMERY, Ala. (AP) — The Republican leader of the Alabama Senate on Tuesday said he would like to use a large portion of the state’s coronavirus relief funds to establish broadband through the state.

Senate President Pro Tem Del Marsh said Tuesday that he hoped to put $800 million from an estimated $1.7 billion in federal relief dollars for broadband access. Alabama students are finishing the school year from home because of the pandemic. Marsh said distance learning would have been easier to accomplish if the state had better internet access.

“Now is the time to take some of that, a big enough section of that money, (for) high-speed broadband across this state, in every corner of this state,” Marsh said. “Had this been in place, our kids would still be in school. Telemedicine would exist for all citizens of this state.”

However, it is unclear if broadband access would fall under allowed expenditures of the federal relief act designed to address COVID-19 issues. Under the federal CARES Act, relief dollars must be spent on “necessary expenses incurred” due to the outbreak, cannot be used to replace existing revenue, and must be used for expenses between March 1 and December 30.

Sen. Arthur Orr, R-Decatur, who chairs the Senate education budget committee, said this week that he views expanding broadband access as a related and necessary expense.

“If your kids are sitting at home because of a relapse or new spike in the virus with new shelter-in-place orders coming down, let’s say in October or November, I would say it is a good expenditure because these kids have to get educated,” Orr said

Alabama Gov. Kay Ivey’s office said they will seek guidance on the issue.

“The governor with the team at the Alabama Department of Finance are working to assess the needs that can be covered by this fund, based on guidance issued by the U.S. Treasury. While the governor agrees broadband is essential for education, she will also seek guidance if this is something we can allocate money toward,” spokeswoman Gina Maiola said.

Where internet access is limited, school systems have had to come up with creative solutions such as installing mobile hotspots on school buses that will go out into neighborhoods.

Congressman Robert Aderholt on Wednesday wrote U.S. House Speaker Nancy Pelosi and U.S. Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell urging them to make broadband expansion part of any potential “phase four” coronavirus relief legislation.

The two Alabama Senate budget committees met briefly to work on state budgets for the fiscal year that begins Oct. 1.

Lawmakers began the year anticipating that they would give pay raises for teachers and state employees, but legislative leaders said Tuesday that those raises were now unlikely because of uncertain revenue outlook.

Alabama lawmakers return to Montgomery on Monday to resume the legislative session.

Alabama Daily News’ Todd Stacy contributed information to this story.