Despite a rather public back and forth, Gov. Kay Ivey and the Alabama Legislature were able to come to an agreement on how to spend nearly $2 billion in federal funding intended to offset the state’s response to COVID-19 as an unusual legislative session came to a close.
Earlier this month, the Legislature convened in an abbreviated session to pass the state’s General Fund and Education Trust Fund (ETF) budgets along with a handful of local bills. After passing a $7.2 billion ETF budget and allocating $2.3 billion to the General Fund, Ivey submitted an executive amendment.
The Senate’s version of the budget would have limited the governor’s discretion over the $1.8 billion Alabama is set to receive from the Coronavirus, Aid, Relief and Economic Security (CARES) Act to just $200 million. Instead, Ivey’s executive amendment directed all of those funds to the Alabama Department of Finance, which is overseen by her office. It also established some broad uses for the funding.
Among other allocations, the amendment sets aside $300 million to reimburse state agencies, including $5 million specifically allocated to the Alabama Department of Public Health. Other provisions set $250 million to $300 million limits on reimbursements to local governments; efforts to expand broadband access; and support for businesses, nonprofits and faith-based groups impacted by the COVID-19 pandemic.
You can the pertinent parts of Ivey’s CARES Act amendment below:
The language does require the director of finance to notify the legislative leadership anytime more than $2.5 million of CARES Act funding is spent but doesn’t leave legislators with any authority over what specific projects are funded. Despite that, the amendment passed nearly unanimously when legislators returned to adjourn the session on May 18. In a statement, Ivey commended them for their “cooperation.”
“This friendly amendment ensures the CARES Act money will be immediately available to the people of Alabama and put to use under the intent of the U.S. Congress and President Trump,” Ivey wrote. “Our cities, counties and state, as well as places like our nursing homes, hospitals, schools and colleges have incurred many legitimate expenses because of COVID-19.”
Ivey went on to say she values her relationship with every legislator, though after the session ended, Senate President Pro Tem Del Marsh said that relationship with many state senators was “strained” by the process of determining how the state’s CARES Act funding would be spent — a saga that has played out in statewide and national media over the past two weeks.
As Lagniappe reported, Ivey threw the Legislature into the national spotlight earlier this month after a rebuke of what she described as a “wishlist” from legislators that laid out possible expenditures for the CARES Act funding, which included $200 million for a new State House.
In response to legislative attempts to limit the executive branch’s discretion over those funds as part of their budget negotiations, Ivey released a statement calling the State House project “inappropriate.” Ivey claimed she had no desire to control the funds, but argued the process needed to be transparent.
Responding to questions from the media, Ivey brought the Legislature’s handling of more than $1 billion from its settlement with BP from the 2010 oil spill — money that was redirected from coastal Alabama to help the state fill holes in the state’s budget and pay down debt. Ivey said that was an example of the Legislature seeing to it that “money went to places other than where it was intended.”
Still, Ivey initially offered to give the Legislature full control over the funding, but then threatened to hold an expected special session this fall hostage if she wasn’t provided with “a full, detailed and public list of how the money will be spent in exact amounts, down to the penny.”
Some legislators pushed back, accusing Ivey of releasing the so-called “wishlist” publicly as a political ploy. State Sen. Chris Elliott, R-Fairhope, has been specifically vocal about the impact it had on the relationship between Ivey’s office and the leadership in the Senate. He argued the “wishlist” was an early effort in discussions about possible CARES Act funding uses, not a finalized request for funding.
With some discussion, the Senate voted 30-1 to approve the executive amendment. Elliott, who has butted heads with Ivey before over issues like proposed tolls on the Interstate 10 bridge, was the lone “no” vote. In an interview with Lagniappe, Elliott said he couldn’t support a plan that offered very few details about how nearly $2 billion in federal funding would be spent over the coming weeks and months.
“As appropriators, we approved money for specific budgeted purposes, and couldn’t reconcile supporting these large, kind of nondescript buckets of funding that were hundreds of millions of dollars apiece,” Elliott said. “For somebody who was just saying she wanted detailed specifics about how every penny was going to be spent, appropriating $1.8 billion without any specific details didn’t sit right to me.”
As mentioned above, the executive amendment the agency adopted does give some broad indications about the types of projects CARES Act funding will pay for, but it’s not an itemized list of what will be funded and which agencies and municipalities will be reimbursed with those dollars. It was also a 180-degree turn from Ivey’s previous claim she had “no desire” to oversee the funds.
According to Elliott, an amendment proposed by the House would have required “all expenditures made from [CARES Act] funds” be published online, but Ivey’s executive amendment removed those provisions. Elliott said that was an odd decision after her office made “much ado about transparency.”
Pointing to Marsh’s comments about a strained relationship, Elliott said he didn’t think the Senate’s 30-1 vote was indicative of any mended fences between the Legislature and the executive branch. He noted the House had negotiated a compromise with Ivey’s office and there were concerns about an executive veto.
“I don’t think that relationship has improved at all,” he added. “I would say there’s still a very strained relationship and a certain level of mistrust between certain members of the [Senate] and the governor’s office, and that’s something that we will have work out going forward.”
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