By TODD STACY, Alabama Daily News
There’s an old proverb that says, “When elephants fight, it’s the grass that suffers.”
Thinking back, we all should have seen this conflict coming. When Congress passed the CARES Act allocating nearly $1.8 billion to Alabama for coronavirus outbreak relief, how that money was distributed was bound to be a point of contention, and it was.
In case you have socially distanced yourself from Alabama politics for the last week or so, Gov. Kay Ivey and top legislative leaders have wrangled over allocation of the relief money. At first, most assumed the governor and state agencies would be responsible for dispersing the funds because that’s how it worked for the most part with the American Recovery and Reinvestment Act of 2009. However, in late April legislative leaders insisted they have a say. That led to a two-week private back-and-forth, finally resulting in Ivey very publicly ceding full responsibility to the Legislature and embarrassing them in the process with the revelation of a less-than-savy “wish list” of projects.
I wrote about the whole episode in great detail in Friday’s edition of Inside Alabama Politics (subscription) if you care for a more thorough telling.
The Legislature has now sent Ivey a General Fund budget with a supplemental bill that allows the governor and state agencies to spend $200 million of the relief money without legislative approval. That’s intended to allow the state to account for purchases already made and others that need to be made in the near future. However, Ivey says she doesn’t want it, and lawmakers say she went so far as to tell them she would veto any bill that gives her responsibility over “any penny” of relief money. Now the Legislature is set to return on May 18 for the sole purpose of overriding Ivey’s potential veto.
So, that’s where we stand: Alabama’s legislative and executive branches locked in a constitutional conflict over how to spend emergency relief money from Congress. And while it makes for sweet, headline-filling, click-generating news for people like me, this situation has the potential to hurt the state in how we respond to a very serious pandemic.
It’s understandable that many, if not most, thought this $1.8 billion in federal funding was going to essentially be free money that the state could use to plug holes in budgets and buy a few goodies along the way. The state’s most recent instances of an infusion of billions of dollars were the 2009 Recovery Act and the BP oil spill. Each was very different, but they had two similar components: both allowed the state to make up for lost revenue and both allowed state leaders wide discretion over at least some of the funds. Thus, that became our frame of reference for cash windfalls, so no wonder we thought this money would be the same way. Yet, it is not. Congress was careful to put strict limits on how CARES Act relief money could be spent, specifically that it must go to “necessary expenses incurred due to the public health emergency” and not to replace declining revenue. It’s a buzzkill for those of us who originally dreamed of all the ways this $1.8 billion could be spent, but that’s the way it is.
This is emergency money meant to be spent in and on the existing emergency. Lawmakers we spoke to last week said that a special session to consider coronavirus relief fund appropriations could be at least two months away. Factor in the time it would take to actually pass legislation, negotiate amendments with the governor’s office and cut the checks, and we could be looking at mid-August before money starts flowing. That’s not okay. We need emergency money to be flowing now to pay for things like testing and other supplies, tracing systems, personal protective equipment, unemployment compensation and support for small businesses that have been devastated. All those are qualified uses of the funds that agencies can be spending right now.
Maybe there’s some wiggle room. Maybe we could spend some of the money on larger, gray-area projects like expanding rural broadband as Senate President Pro Tem Del Marsh wants to do. Moreover, maybe Congress will come back and change the rules on this money or even produce other funds for more flexible purposes. That’s perhaps enough reason to press pause on some of the money and allow legislative input down the road when we know more. If it came to spending $800 million on broadband, I would feel better for that having gone through the legislative process.
It is possible to have it both ways, actually. There is a way the state could see hundreds of millions being put to use right now to respond to the outbreak while also allowing lawmakers to have input in larger projects when more guidance is available.
As I mentioned, the Legislature is anticipating a veto from the governor on the General Fund supplemental, which lawmakers can easily override with simple majorities. But it doesn’t have to be a binary choice between the governor’s way or the Legislature’s way. The state constitution allows the governor to send executive amendments back to the Legislature for its consideration. Sometimes this is used to clean up muddy language and other times there are honest-to-God policy disagreements. In this case, the executive amendment could be particularly useful for bringing a positive resolution to the situation.
When tempers have cooled, the governor and top lawmakers should sit down – six feet apart – and negotiate an executive amendment that allows the state to properly address the crisis. I’m not prescribing policy here. Maybe state agencies need $600 million in the short term as Rep. Steve Clouse proposed in his amended budget, or maybe they need more. Get some smart people in the room and figure it out. No matter what the numbers end up being, both sides should figure out an equitable agreement, pass the amended budget and be done with it.
That will require both sides to stand down a bit. Ivey scored a public relations coup with the “wish list” story, which I’m sure felt good after being sniped at and second guessed for her pandemic response. Telling the Legislature “you want it, you got it” on relief money and giving them the control they might live to regret had to feel good politically, but it doesn’t work logistically. Legislative leaders scored a big win for their constitutional check on the governor’s office, which probably felt good, too, but putting her in a corner ultimately backfired and led to their own embarrassment. Overriding her veto would also feel good, but it could lead to poor outcomes when lives are at stake.
So much of politics driving the day is about taking credit, assigning blame, saving face and scoring points. This time, however, none of that will matter if something goes wrong. If something doesn’t get funded or we miss out on critical resources because of this bickering, no amount of blame-shifting will score points for anybody.
Y’all get together to negotiate an amendment before May 18 and let’s move on to tackle other problems.
Todd Stacy is the publisher of the Alabama Daily News. He previously spent 15 years working in politics and government at the state and federal level. Email him at firstname.lastname@example.org.