Alabama lawmakers pass $1 billion in COVID relief fund allocation

Debate over allocations to smaller communities preceded passage.

By: - March 16, 2023 11:58 am
The words "Alabama State House" are rendered in black over three doors. Above that, there is an engraved rendering of Alabama's motto, "Audemus Jura Nostra Defendere" (We Dare Defend Our Rights) under a metal map of Alabama, showing its rivers.

The entrance to the Alabama State House in Montgomery, Alabama, as seen on January 24, 2023. (Brian Lyman/Alabama Reflector)

The Alabama Legislature Thursday gave final approval to a plan to spend $1 billion in federal COVID relief funds on broadband, health care, and water and sewer projects, sending the bill to Gov. Kay Ivey.   

The Alabama Senate approved the legislation, HB 1, Thursday morning on a 29 to 3 vote. The Alabama House concurred in Senate amendments a few hours later on a vote of 96 to 0. Six Democrats abstained. 

Gov. Kay Ivey signed both the American Rescue Plan Act bill and a bill paying off money borrowed from the Alabama Trust Fund Thursday afternoon.

“Alabama can now look to a future of greater promise thanks to the steps we have taken this week to invest these funds wisely,” she said in a statement about the federal funds.

Senate Finance and Taxation General Fund chair Greg Albritton, R-Atmore, who handled the bill in the Senate, said after the vote that he believes the funds will provide benefits to Alabamians. 

“In Alabama, that’s gonna make generational differences,” he said. “I’m excited about it.”

The bill allocates $400 million to water and sewer projects, up to $260 million for broadband expansion, up to $100 million for nursing and another $100 million for hospitals.

The debate in both chambers Thursday focused on how the money would be spent, and unmet needs. A Senate committee Wednesday amended the bill to direct about $200 million to stormwater projects, and to require about $100 million to go to projects where local governments can post a 35% match. The Alabama Department of Environmental Management (ADEM) will oversee the distribution of the water and sewer money.

A man in glasses leans forward.
Sen. Greg Albritton, R-Atmore, the chair of the Senate Finance and Taxation General Fund Committee, listens to a budget presentation from the Alabama Community College System on March 7, 2023. The presentation came on the first day of the Alabama Legislature’s 2023 regular session. (Brian Lyman/Alabama Reflector)

The amendment drew criticism from some senators on Thursday. Sen. Rodger Smitherman, D-Birmingham, said that he believes that Alabama needs to address stormwater in the way that Boston needs to address snow. Smitherman also said that smaller areas need ways to access that money in ways that will not be overly complicated or strenuous.

“Some of these small towns don’t even have boots, let alone some straps,” he said.

Rep. Thomas Jackson, D-Thomasville, echoed those concerns during the House debate, saying his rural counties could not afford the match.

“What do we need to do to get ADEM to look at us differently to access water?” he said. 

House Ways and Means General Fund chair Rex Reynolds, R-Huntsville, who sponsored the bill, said the match did not apply to all the grants.

“The first $195 million requires no match,” he said. 

Rep. Sam Jones, D-Mobile, also had concerns about the 35% matching part of the bill.

The fact of the matter, what it does, without saying so it actually makes it impossible for not a number of citizen participants,” he said.

Reynolds said that the 35% matching is not necessarily a requirement.

“You get people there with great needs projects out, and again, I go back is not a requirement in that $100 million,” he said. “That is not a requirement. It’s just available to increase that matching fund. And then we’ll see how it is. I mean, it just might be an area that we have to evaluate as an oversight commission.”

After the meeting, Reynolds said ADEM gets to decide who gets a match.

“You’re looking at city’s ability to pay a match,” he said. “And I mean, you’re talking about public funds. So that’s typically you know, you see that you see people’s budget, so you can pretty quickly tell whether they’re able to pay the matching funds or not. And that’s the main reason that first $195 million line item, there’s just absolutely no match required on that.”

Smitherman later offered an amendment saying that applications could not be rejected on a technical deficiency. The senator said that his amendment would help small towns access the money.

“If you’re in a metropolitan area you probably have someone there who will address that,” he said. “But, our small towns, they cannot afford that.”

A man hunched over looking at papers.
Senate Minority Leader Bobby Singleton, D-Greensboro, reviews documents on March 7, 2023. Legislators gathered Tuesday for the first day of the Alabama Legislature’s 2023 regular session. (Brian Lyman/Alabama Reflector)

Senate Minority Leader Bobby Singleton, D-Greensboro, said that he would vote for the amendment, but also criticized the spending of the current ARPA funds, saying the state’s counties got around $490 million.

“Some of them chose not to do any stormwater with their money,” he said. “Now they’re crying to us and trying to make it urgent that we do this for them.  That’s why I’m not feeling that urgency.”

Education and rural health care

Others expressed concerns about neglected areas. Sen. Arthur Orr, R-Decatur, the chair of the Senate Finance and Taxation Education committee, said he was called by “higher authorities” to speak. 

Orr told Albritton that he could not support the bill because there was not enough money for Public Education Employees Health Insurance Plan (PEEHIP), the state health insurance program for education program. Orr said in an interview after the vote that the PEEHIP expenditures are directly attributable to the pandemic, which is why he wanted them included.

“But other than that, good job,” he said to Albritton.

Sen. Linda Coleman-Madison, D-Birmingham, had questions about matching funds in the bill. She was also concerned about federal regulators looking into the money sent to counties, and counties needing to pay back money because there wasn’t proper documentation.

She also asked Albritton why “domestic” was placed before “violence” in the bill.

Albritton explained that it was because victims of domestic violence increased during the pandemic.

The Council on Criminal Justice found that domestic violence increased by 8.1% during lockdown.

Coleman-Madison withdrew her amendment.

Some legislators, including Sen. Will Barfoot, R-Pike Road, asked the Senate to think about rural healthcare. Senate President Pro Tempore Greg Reed, R-Jasper, also said that the Senate needs to stay focused on nursing and healthcare when the regular session resumes on Tuesday.

“We had a lot of areas of my district, if we didn’t have a nurse practitioner in those areas, we wouldn’t have healthcare in some of those communities,” he said.

The Legislature also gave final approval to a bill to send $60 million to pay off money borrowed from the Alabama Trust Fund in 2012 to address a General Fund shortfall that year. The state borrowed $437 million that year. The $60 million will complete the payments.

Alander Rocha contributed reporting.

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Jemma Stephenson
Jemma Stephenson

Jemma Stephenson covers education as a reporter for the Alabama Reflector. She previously worked at the Montgomery Advertiser and graduated from the Columbia University Graduate School of Journalism.