All was going well for the Ivey administration with regards to the Alabama Legislature up until last week.
Except for the sorely mishandled Mobile Bay toll bridge fiasco (which was contained to everything south of the Dolly Parton Bridge, as much of the rest of the state shrugged it off), Gov. Kay Ivey’s relationship with the Alabama Legislature has been unmatched in the post-George Wallace era.
Ivey has an advantage most of her predecessors did not have: single-party rule with a supermajority in both chambers of the Legislature.
That changed last week when the governor seemingly deployed a nuclear option against the GOP leadership in both the House and the Senate.
Unbeknownst to most of us, Ivey and a group of lawmakers — presumably led by House Speaker Mac McCutcheon, R-Monrovia, and State Senate President Pro Tem Del Marsh, R-Anniston, were working on a deal with Ivey’s administration on how to allocate nearly $1.8 billion in federal coronavirus relief money allocated to the state.
That’s roughly the size of a General Fund budget on a lean year, which seems like something that should have been on everyone’s radar, but somehow slipped past it until late last week.
There is a rub. Congress appropriated the money under the Coronavirus Aid, Relief and Economic Security (CARES) Act to reimburse states for expenses related to COVID-19. Fortunately, Alabama’s expenditures in coronavirus response are far lower than $1.8 billion.
The question is, could that federally appropriated money be spent on other projects tangentially related to COVID-19? If so, what might that include?
Ivey and members of leadership in the Legislature decided to go ahead and take a shot at answering those questions.
Somewhere along the way, things seemed to fall apart. Last Thursday, word started leaking out of the Alabama State House about the possibility of legislators being forced to return to Montgomery one last time before the adjournment sine die for 2020 to override Ivey’s veto of the General Fund budget.
This, of course, coming as members from both chambers returned to Montgomery to pass budgets in a general session abbreviated by the coronavirus pandemic.
A veto? Why would Ivey do that? After a reporter reached out to Ivey’s office and it denied such a claim, Ivey put out a statement that was apparently intended to be a condemnation of the Alabama Legislature for its proposed CARES Act expenditures. One item among those proposed was $200 million for a new State House.
“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’s statement said.
Given the bare-bone nature of the fiscal year’s budget, it was assumed Ivey would call for a special session of the Legislature later in the year when lawmakers had a better grasp of revenue. Later in her statement, however, Ivey recounted a threat she made to House General Fund Committee Chairman Rep. Steve Clouse, R-Ozark, not to afford the Legislature that opportunity if it entailed allocating the CARES Act money.
“I advised Chairman 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 said in the statement. “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.”
Moments later, the “wish list” was disseminated throughout the Montgomery capitol press corps, and unaware lawmakers started hearing from angry constituents wanting to know why the Legislature was building the Taj Mahal of state houses given the plight of some Alabamians under the coronavirus economic downturn.
Later that night on various local evening newscasts throughout the state, the $200 million State House line item was highlighted, as if it were something under serious consideration.
Clouse later ruled out the possibility of CARES Act money being used for a new State House in a radio interview. Marsh, during an appearance on Alabama Public Television on Friday, took ownership of the proposal, but voiced his frustration with Ivey’s tactic to embarrass the Legislature for political gain.
Advantage: Ivey, for now.
In the end, it will be a Pyrrhic victory for the governor. Ivey’s office under the leadership of Chief of Staff Jo Bonner (remember him?) has lost the trust of many members.
Should the Legislature spend CARES Act money on a new State House? Absolutely not. Were they going to do so? Probably not, especially if it were not allowed under federal law. It was still embarrassing for the Legislature, nonetheless.
Here is one unanswered question: What would Ivey have done with $1.8 billion? Build new prisons? Expand Medicaid rolls? Those are not exactly traditional Republican objectives.
There is one significant development to come from this situation: The extended honeymoon of this quadrennium between the Legislature and Ivey is finally over. Good luck with the next two years, Governor.
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