Alabama House approves $1 billion plan for pandemic funds
The Alabama House on Tuesday advanced a plan to use the state’s final $1 billion in federal pandemic relief funds mostly on a mix of water and sewer infrastructure, broadband expansion and health care reimbursements.
Representatives voted 102-3 for the legislation, which now moves to the Alabama Senate. Gov. Kay Ivey called lawmakers into special session last week to find a way to use the state's remaining $1.06 billion sent from the federal American Rescue Plan — the sweeping relief plan approved by Congress to help the country climb out of the coronavirus crisis.
“I think we made an investment in our state today,” House Speaker Nathaniel Ledbetter said after the vote. A Senate committee will take up the spending plan Wednesday morning.
Representatives approved the bill with a near-unanimous vote came but several supporting lawmakers questioned if the funds are getting used properly.
“We continue year in and year out to put this money in place for broadband, but yet these communities still don't have adequate broadband,” Democratic Rep. Juandalynn Givan said of public housing communities in and near Birmingham.
Givan, who voted for the legislation, also criticized the state's 2021 decision to use $400 million from the American Rescue Plan for “prisons that we haven't built yet" when the state is facing other needs.
The current legislation steers $100 million to help hospitals financially recover from the coronavirus pandemic, but that is only one-third of the amount that hospitals requested.
Dr. Don Williamson, president of the Alabama Hospital Association, said hospitals faced heavy financial losses as expenses roses during the pandemic and because of the high numbers of patients without health insurance.
“We are grateful for the $100 million but it is not going to keep all hospitals at risk of closing from closing,” Williamson said.
The proposed spending plan would allocate:
— $339 million for health care costs, including $100 million to reimburse hospitals for pandemic-related expenses, $100 million to reimburse nursing homes and $25 million to support mental health programs and services.
— $400 million for water and sewer infrastructure projects, including $195 million for high-need projects, $200 million for matching funds for public water and sewer systems, and $5 million for septic systems in the Black Belt region.
— $260 million for improvement and expansion of broadband network access.
— $55 million for projects that address economic impacts of the pandemic. The legislation says the Department of Finance may distribute the money for a wide range of needs such as food banks, long-term housing and summer learning programs for children.
The spending plan directs pots of money to state agencies, such as the Alabama Department of Environmental Management, and other entities to distribute for the allotted purposes.
House members also voted 104-0 for separate legislation to use $60 million from a budget surplus to finish repaying money borrowed a decade ago during a budget shortfall. Alabama voters in 2012 approved borrowing $437 million from the Trust Fund — a state savings account fueled by offshore drilling royalties — to avoid cuts to state services.
Lawmakers stood and applauded when the legislation was approved. The bill also moves to the Alabama Senate where state senators approved a similar bill.