Alabama Lawmakers Begin Special Session on What to Do with $1 Billion in Federal Relief Money

By KIM CHANDLER Associated Press

Alabama will spend the remaining $1 billion of its pandemic relief funds largely on a mixture of water and sewer infrastructure, broadband expansion and healthcare reimbursements, under a bill introduced Wednesday.

Lawmakers on Wednesday began a special session on 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. They are also considering separate legislation to use $60 million from the current budget surplus to finish repaying money borrowed a decade ago during a budget shortfall.

The final pandemic relief spending bill continues an emphasis on infrastructure projects such as water and sewer lines. “We have spent it on investments in our state that are going to make our state better for the long run,” House Speaker Nathaniel Ledbetter said.

The bill also steers $100 million to reimburse hospitals for pandemic-related expenses. Dr. Don Williamson, the head of the Alabama Hospital Association, said hospitals have lost over $1 billion since the start of the pandemic as costs skyrocketed, and a number of rural hospitals in the state are at risk of closing.

“We’re grateful for the hundred (million) but it’s not enough,” Williamson said of the needs facing hospitals.

“We truly face an existential crisis in the survival of our hospitals. Unless something changes we will have fewer hospitals a year from now than we do today. And more importantly, Alabamians will have fewer choices for healthcare and less access to healthcare,” Williamson said.

The proposed spending plan would steer:

— $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.

— $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 programs such as to food banks, housing and child welfare programs.

The bill will be in committee on Thursday and legislative leaders are aiming to get final passage by the end of next week.

“I pretty much sense in the House that we’ve got overwhelming support on the bill,” Republican Rep. Rex Reynolds, the bill’s sponsor, said. “I do know there’s some questions in the Senate, so we’ll just have to deal with that when we get there.”

The only other item on the special session agenda is legislation to steer $60 million from a budget surplus to finish paying off money the state borrowed from the Alabama Trust Fund. 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.

“I think it’s the obligation for everybody to pay their bills. And we made that obligation to the people,” Republican Sen. Greg Albritton, who is sponsoring the repayment legislation, said.

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