MONTGOMERY, Ala. (AP) — Alabama lawmakers, attempting to decide how to spend more than $500 million in pandemic relief funds, on Thursday generally agreed on funding broadband and water and sewer projects but disagreed about whether to steer some money to state parks.
Lawmakers anticipate meeting as soon as next week in a special session called by Gov. Kay Ivey to discuss how to use the remaining $580 million from the state's first installment from the American Rescue Plan.
“You can imagine with this kind of money everybody’s at the trough,” said Sen. Del Marsh, a Republican from Anniston. Marsh said he expects the special session to happen next week, while other lawmakers only said it was a possibility.
Senate President Pro Tem Greg Reed said there have been requests “on a plethora of different topics" for using the remaining $580 million. “We're trying to make sure that we isolate on those things that have the biggest investment benefit for the future,” said Reed, a Republican from Jasper.
The massive $1.9 trillion American Rescue Plan provided aid for state, local and tribal governments to help shore up their finances, pay the ongoing costs of fighting the coronavirus pandemic and invest in longer-term projects to strengthen communities.
Alabama received the first half of its $2.12 billion allotment in June. The state has $580 million remaining after steering $80 million to hospitals and nursing homes and $400 million to a controversial prison construction plan.
Republicans and Democrats have expressed general support for using money for broadband, water and sewer infrastructure and relief to health care providers, although the specifics of the plans remain under discussion. But using the money for state parks emerged as a subject of contention on Thursday.
House Speaker Mac McCutcheon and other legislative leaders said one of the ideas under discussion is using a portion of the money for improvements at state parks and historic sites. Assistant House Minority Leader Merika Coleman said House Democrats had some concerns about that proposal.
"What we don’t want to happen with this money is for people to use it as an opportunity for pet projects because it is an election year. The money should go to the entities that need it the most, that have been on the frontlines of this pandemic for the past two years," said Coleman, a Democrat from Pleasant Grove.
Senate Minority Leader Bobby Singleton said he thought money for parks could wait until the next round of funding when the state receives its second $1 billion allocation. “We need to deal with the pandemic,” said Singleton, a Democrat from Greensboro. "I would love to see more things that are more sustainable with this pandemic and being able to help people."
When asked about the idea, some members noted the importance of state parks to local tourism. Sen. Tim Melson, a Republican from Florence, said Joe Wheeler Park hasn't been repaired after being struck by a tornado.
"It needs to be done so we can get it back to functionality and we can get tourism back in there,” Melson said.
Lawmakers in New Mexico earmarked $14.5 million of that state's money for state parks and historic sites.
Sen. Greg Albritton, who chairs the Senate General Fund budget committee, said regarding the question of how to spend the relief money, “most everything you can dream of has been thought of and looked at.”
“We're deep into it. I thought we were past the yelling stage, but I'm not sure we completely are yet," Albritton, a Republican from Atmore, said when asked about negotiations.
Lawmakers expect to allocate the $580 million this session and leave decisions on the second $1 billion installment until the state receives it.