Lawmakers ready to spend $1 billion pandemic funds on water, sewer, other infrastructure

Published 4:34 pm Thursday, March 9, 2023

Alabama lawmakers on Thursday advanced a spending plan to use the state’s final $1 billion in federal pandemic relief funds on water and sewer infrastructure, broadband expansion, health care reimbursements and other projects.

The House Ways and Means General Fund Committee approved the legislation with one dissenting vote. It now moves to the full House of Representatives where lawmakers plan to vote on it Tuesday. The sponsor of the bill, Republican Rep. Rex Reynolds of Huntsville, said he has multiple meetings with House members about the plan and is hoping for broad support during next week’s vote.

“We need to get this passed and get it up to the Senate, and we’ll address any amendments that come up,” Reynolds said.

Republican Rep. Arnold Mooney voted against the bill after saying he had some unanswered questions including if lawmakers will have adequate oversight of the spending. Mooney said the Alabama Legislature is “constitutionally given the responsibility to appropriate funds and make sure that those funds are used in a correct manner.”

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. Reynolds said that lawmakers voted to create the Joint Legislative Oversight Committee on American Rescue Plan Act State Funds, which can request reports on expenditures.

Alabama Gov. Kay Ivey called lawmakers into special session this week to address how to use the state’s remaining $1.06 billion from the American Rescue Plan Act — the sweeping $1.9 trillion relief plan approved by Congress to help the country climb out of the coronavirus crisis.

The proposed spending plan would allocate:

— $339 million for healthcare 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.

House and Senate committees on Thursday also advanced separate legislation to use $60 million from the current 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.