Alabama House approves $1 billion spending plan for COVID funds

By: - March 14, 2023 7:00 pm
A large chamber with two stone pillars. A half-moon shaped dais is at center, with an electronic board above it. People sit at desks that fan out across the chamber.

The Alabama House of Representatives meets on March 14, 2023 to consider legislation appropriating $1 billion from the American Rescue Plan Act. The House approved the measure. (Stew Milne for Alabama Reflector)

The Alabama House of Representatives Tuesday approved a plan to spend $1 billion in American Rescue Plan Act (ARPA) funds after a brief debate. 

Representatives approved HB 1, sponsored by House Ways and Means General Fund Committee chair Rex Reynolds, R-Huntsville, on a 102 to 3 vote. It would direct the money to broadband, health care, and water and sewer projects. 

Reps. Arnold Mooney, R-Indian Springs; Rep. Ben Harrison, R-Elkmont and Rep. Ernie Yarbrough, R-Trinity voted no.

The House also passed HB 2, also sponsored by Reynolds, that would fully pay back $437 million borrowed from the Alabama Trust Fund in 2012 amid a budget crisis. HB 2 passed on a 104 to 0 vote.

A man in a suit stands and applauds passage of a bill.
Alabama House Speaker Nathaniel Ledbetter, R-Rainsville, stands and applauds in the Alabama House of Representatives on March 14, 2023. The House approved a plan to spend $1 billion in money from the American Rescue Plan Act. (Stew Milne for Alabama Reflector)

The Senate passed its own version of the bill, SB 1, on a 33 to 0 vote.

“This is a not even a one page (bill),” said Sen. Greg Albritton, R-Atmore, the bill’s sponsor. “It’s a one paragraph where we’re paying off the Alabama Trust Fund.”

Reynolds said the work members of the legislature put into drafting HB 1 over the past couple of months made its swift passage today possible.

“The pre-work, and the leadership got involved and set up the briefings, and we put the experts in front of them – ADEM, ADECA, the other agencies that would be handling the money – and I think that really, really gave the members some confidence,” Reynolds said.

Yarbrough, one of the three nay votes, said that with more sessions to come, he would like to have more time to look at the numbers and line items in the bill. The representative said he wants to be sure that he’s bringing free market principles to the economics of the state.

“[I’m] not saying that it’s not needed in those areas,” he said. “It’s just that I’d like to have more time to dig in and be a part of that process.”

Rep. John Rogers, D-Birmingham, said he was concerned with how decisions were made in the committee, and that he did not feel informed about their actions.

Reynolds said that the committee began working on this bill in December and that it has been an open conversation since then.

“I had a lot of the members calling, texting, meeting with me, and every member had that opportunity to do that,” Reynolds said.

House Speaker Nathaniel Ledbetter, R-Rainsville, was dismissive of Rogers’ comments after the vote.

“Maybe they need to get on the General Fund committee,” he said. “I mean, maybe that’s something they should strive for.” 

Rep. Juandalynn Givan, D-Birmingham, said she wanted to know exactly how much money is going to Jefferson County, which Reynolds said he could not answer because funds allocated are prioritized by neediness. Reynolds said that priority will be given to the four counties that did not receive money from last year’s ARPA funds.

HB 1 would put up to $400 million into water and sewer projects; up to $260 million into broadband expansion; up to $100 million to nursing homes and another $100 million to hospitals.

Water and sewer projects got $225 million in Alabama’s first round of COVID relief money. HB 1 would raise that to $400 million. Broadband funding went down slightly, from $276 million in last year’s allocations to $260 million in this year’s proposal.

The bill now moves to the Senate, where Reynolds is not so sure its passage will be as swift.

“It could go into Friday morning,” he said. “If those have amendments and we get it back here, I would not certainly the speakers call I would not go home and leave that laying there, so we’d deal with it on Friday.”

Representatives of the Alabama Hospital Association and the Alabama Nursing Home Association said last week they were grateful for the help. But the AHA asked for nearly four times the amount of federal funds it would receive under the bill, which would be enough to keep the doors open.

A not-so-special session bill

Sen. Garlan Gudger, R-Cullman, took the Senate floor for about 45 minutes Tuesday in an attempt to persuade his colleagues to pass a hospital visitation bill he has sponsored.

SB 2 would allow visitors and “essential caregivers” to have the right to visit patients in the hospital. A designated “essential caregiver” would be permitted to visit the patient beyond normal hours and for extended periods of time.

“But without family engagement next to your loved one, they can’t feel they can see us and they feel like they’re alone,” Gudger said.

Special sessions are called by governors to consider a specific list of bills. Any bill not in the call requires a two-thirds vote of both houses to pass. Gudger’s bill was not part of Ivey’s special session call.

Several Republican members of the Senate thanked Gudger for bringing attention to this bill.

Sen. Rodger Smitherman, D-Birmingham, said that he was concerned about liability towards the hospital and wanted to make sure the hospital had a say in the visitors who “may” visit. Under the bill, essential caregivers “shall” visit.

He said want hospitals shielded “from any appearance of liability unless they make the call.”

“I’m a lawyer,” he said to Gudger, acknowledging that his requests sound “strange.”

Senate President Pro Tem Greg Reed, R-Jasper, went to the mic and shared his support for the bill and said it would be on a “hot rail” when they returned to a regular session next week.

“And, so, that is what I’ve committed to you and committed to others and now commit to the body that this is a topic that we need to be focused on,” he said.

Staff writer Jemma Stephenson contributed to this report.

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Alander Rocha
Alander Rocha

Alander Rocha is a journalist based in Montgomery, and he reports on government, policy and healthcare. He previously worked for KFF Health News and the Red & Black, Georgia's student newspaper. He is a Tulane and Georgia alumnus with a two-year stint in the U.S. Peace Corps.