By MARY SELL, TODD STACY and CAROLINE BECK, Alabama Daily News
MONTGOMERY, Ala. - After private wrangling between the Legislature and Gov. Kay Ivey over the authority to spend nearly $1.8 billion in federal coronavirus relief money, Ivey on Thursday publicly put the responsibility on lawmakers.
“I have never desired to control a single penny of this money and if the Legislature feels so strongly that they should have that authority, I yield to them both the money and the responsibility to make good decisions – in the light of day where the people of Alabama know what is happening,” Ivey said in a written statement to reporters Thursday afternoon.
Senate President Pro Tem Del Marsh, R-Anniston, said in response that he appreciates Ivey “adhering to the Alabama Constitution on how taxpayer dollars are appropriated.”
His account differed from Ivey’s in that he implied the governor “expected to have sole discretion” over the federal relief funds. Multiple lawmakers told Alabama Daily News that the governor’s office resisted the Legislature’s recent attempts to stake out control of how those dollars will be spent.
“... it is surprising that anybody expected to have sole discretion on how this money would be spent without public input and oversight," Marsh said. "We look forward to working with Gov. Ivey and her team as we reopen Alabama for business, put people back to work, and get money from the CARES Act into the hands of those who need it the most.”
Ivey’s statement, its tone more pointed and passionate than usual, came hours before lawmakers gave final passage to the General Fund budget. How much federal coronavirus relief money Ivey would be allowed to immediately spend has been a moving target in the budget in the last two weeks.
Ivey put the onus on the Legislature to come up with a spending plan.
“We look forward to seeing their proposed budget. It is obvious the Legislature has more work to do,” she said.
Alabama Daily News this week obtained an informal legislative document that listed proposed uses for the federal money.
It included $800 million for broadband internet across the state, $100 million for the Alabama Department of Corrections and $200 million for a new State House and renovations at the Capitol. About $300 million in expenses appeared to be related to COVID-19 response and research.
State leaders this week said they were still looking for direction on how the money can be spent. According to the Treasury Department, the funds must be spent on outbreak related expenses and cannot go to replace lost revenue.
“I advised (House General Fund budget committee chairman Steve) Clouse that I will not call the Legislature back into a Special Session unless and until they provide the people of Alabama – in advance – a full, detailed and public list of how the money will be spent in exact amounts, down to the penny,” Ivey wrote. “I have already seen one ‘wish list’ that includes a new $200 million State House for the Legislature. To me, that is totally unacceptable and not how President Trump and Congress intended for this money to be spent.”
Last week, an Alabama Senate committee staked a claim to involvement in the spending of the relief, creating a three-person panel — Ivey and the two legislative General Fund budget chairs — to dole out the money. But this week, the Senate removed that language, saying the state constitution gives lawmakers the authority to approve the spending.
“Like any other money, this is going to have to come through the normal appropriation methods, as per the constitution,” Sen. Greg Albritton, R-Range, said earlier this week.
Because the money needs to be allocated this year and next, he said it will likely be taken up in a special session later this year.
A supplemental budget bill made an exception for $100 million, which Albritton said accounts for federal relief funds already spent so far by the state. That bill also explicitly gives the Legislature purview over any future state relief funds approved by Congress.
A House committee on Wednesday bumped that amount to $600 million. Then, after Ivey’s statement Thursday, the House amended it again to reduce the total to $200 million.
“We look to come back in special session to see what the possibilities are for any of this money,” Clouse, the House General Fund budget committee chairman, said Thursday afternoon. “The stringent regulations are making it so we may not be able to spend any of it and we have to spend it by December 31 of this year. So it could possibly all be going back to Washington, we’ll see. It’s changing by the day.”
He also said the “wishlist” didn’t originate from the Legislature and did not have his approval.
“That’s not a list from the Legislature, I’m not even sure who wrote the list,” Clouse said. “I saw it, but there will be many more of those lists going around as far as where the money might potentially go if the feds approve of it. I’m not sure where that list came from.”
Several lawmakers agreed a new building for them would be an inappropriate, and likely unallowable, use of the money.
“That wasn’t the intent of that money,” Sen. Gerald Allen, R-Tuscaloosa, said. “That’s unacceptable and we shouldn’t even go there.”
Allen also said he hopes Ivey “won’t shut the door on the fact that input from the governor’s office is very important.”
Rep. Lynn Greer, R-Rogersville, said Thursday he thinks the governor should have a say in how the money is spent. He said in the Legislature, with 140 members, the decisions on spending will likely be made by a handful of lawmakers.
“I would trust (Ivey) rather than handing it over to a few members of the Legislature, a thousand to one,” he said.
Sen. Larry Stutts, R-Tuscumbia, said he applauds Ivey’s statement because it is the Legislature’s responsibility to appropriate that money.
Stutts said the federal money should be used on broadband expansion, which would benefit businesses and thousands of school children.
"This is one-time money and it needs to be spent on things that will have a generational impact on the entire state.”
“Surely with $1.7 billion, we can find a way to work together to get it where it needs to go,” Sen. Tim Melson, R-Florence, said. “There are a whole lot of priorities in this state. I hope we can find things that benefit the masses, not the few.”
Sen. Garlan Gudger, R-Cullman, said it’s the constitutional duty of the legislature to authorize money coming into the state, including federal money.
“Nothing has changed our role from doing just that. Obviously, we will work with the Governor for what’s best for all Alabamians.”