By CAROLINE BECK and MARY SELL, Alabama Daily News
MONTGOMERY, Ala. — Alabama lawmakers could be called back to the State House this year for multiple special sessions on various issues, but the likely first topic will be the distribution of billions of dollars in federal COVID-19 relief funds.
That American Rescue Plan Act money will start flowing to the state as soon as this month, but the state’s share can’t be distributed to agencies or dedicated to specific causes until it goes through an allocation process similar to the annual General Fund budgets. Alabama Daily News previously reported the state, including local governments, will receive more than $4 billion in this round of relief approved in March.
Gov. Kay Ivey’s office this week referred questions about a possible federal funds-related special session to the Alabama Department of Finance. Finance confirmed the need for lawmakers to act, but said the timing is still not known.
Finance Deputy Director Susan Wilhelm recently told ADN the department is going through a voluminous amount of material and guidance from the U.S. Treasury on how the money can be spent and more information is still pending.
“We are closely reading them now and look forward to the additional information promised by the Treasury to help us make recommendations on how to best utilize these funds to respond to the COVID-19 pandemic and for the betterment of the State of Alabama,” Wilhelm said.
Senate General Fund budget committee chairman Sen. Greg Albritton said special session dates haven’t been discussed. He said theoretically the distribution could wait until the 2022 regular session in January.
“But money laying in the bank with state agencies after every penny, I just don’t think that’s politically feasible,” he said.
The spending parameters passed by Congress on the new relief money are less strict than last year’s CARES Act package. States will have until December 2024 to spend the money, while the last package required states to spend it by the end of 2020.
Alabama City Allocations from the American Rescue Plan Act (Source: Treasury Dept.)
Alabama County Allocations from the American Rescue Plan Act (Source: Treasury Dept.)
Albritton said he thinks two specials this year would be appropriate each featuring two of four topics: the federal funds allocations, a potential prison bond issue, gambling and the required redrawing of legislative and congressional districts with the new census data.
While the reapportionment session has to happen and is expected in the fall, Ivey, the only person who can call a special, has not committed to calling lawmakers back on either prisons or gambling.
Albritton said Ivey has been asked about a prison special.
“We have not received a response as to if or when that will happen,” he said.
Sen. Arthur Orr, R-Decatur, said Tuesday he doesn’t think the allocation of funds should happen during the reapportionment special.
“I think it could work in a prison special session,” Orr, the Senate education budget chairman, said.
Ivey has until June 1 to make final decisions on the two prison leases she has already signed to build two new mega men’s prisons, negotiations on a third new prison are still ongoing.
House Speaker Mac McCutcheon, R-Monrovia, said if the governor’s plan isn’t resolved by June 1 then the Legislature will be looking at another chance at a bond for state-owned prisons.
“If something is not worked out through the governor’s office, then the governor will work with the legislature to try to come up with a new plan and if that’s the case then I think that there’s a possibility that could be a special session on that,” McCutcheon told reporters on the final legislative day.
State lawmakers have maintained that doing their own bond issue that would result in the state owning the prisons after the 30-year lease is the route they would prefer to go down.
Senate Majority leader Clay Scofield, R-Guntersville, said he believes Senate Republicans would support doing their own bond issue.
“If we know that that [the governor’s plan] goes down, then yes, I do think that we have the votes to support a bond issue to fix our present situation,” Scofield said.
Prison construction bills have failed in years past in the Alabama Legislature with political infighting over which districts would lose prisons and which ones would gain new facilities and the jobs that come with them.
McCutcheon acknowledged those past failures and is why the legislature will be working hand in hand with the governor on this issue.
“The governor has taken a leadership role in this and she stepped out with this lease program and so the Senate and the House are both supporting her and we will be with her all the way through June 1, and then let’s just see what comes out,” McCutcheon said.
Senate President Pro Tem Greg Reed, R-Jasper, said the Senate was willing and eager to tackle a prison bond issue.
“These are topics we cannot ignore, we’re going to have to deal with them in an effective way,” Reed said. “The governor has worked on trying to do that, if the need for the legislature to weigh in in different ways associated with what the plans might be in the future. I think the Senate’s going to be standing ready to do what’s required to be able to meet the demands on this prison topic.
House General Fund Chairman Steve Clouse, R-Ozark, said if a special session is to happen on redistricting and prisons then it is doubtful there would be one on gambling as well.
“I don’t think we’ll have time to deal with it in a special session,” Clouse said. “I think we’ll be dealing with prisons and then redistricting for the legislature which is always controversial and then for congressional districts and the state school board, so those will take up plenty of time and then we go in the second Tuesday of January next year.”
Orr said the Senate would like to see any special sessions wait a few months, allowing staff and others a chance to take long-awaited family vacations in June and July. Lawmakers could come back to Montgomery in August when children return to school, he said.