Special legislative session on COVID relief money opens with pleas for help

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Representatives find their seats as the Alabama House of Representatives restarts the session at the State House in Montgomery, Ala., on Monday, May 4, 2020.
Representatives find their seats as the Alabama House of Representatives restarts the session at the State House in Montgomery, Ala., on Monday, May 4, 2020.

Three things were clear at the end of the Alabama Legislature's first day of the special session: there's a lot of COVID money; there's broad consensus on how to use it, and it won't cover all the needs out there.

That last point became clear at an hourlong public hearing on Wednesday, where those expected to receive money said it wouldn't be nearly enough, and those that didn't pleaded with legislators to get them in or at least remember them when the next round of COVID relief money becomes available later this spring.

"It's a super stressful time for us," said Bob Parker, who owns two Dreamland Bar-B-Q restaurants in Montgomery and who said he had lost 10 employees during the past year. "It's hard for us to predict what their schedule is going to be, because we don't know what the revenues are going to be."

Legislators will decide how to spend about $772 million immediately available to the state in a special session that leaders expect to last just over a week.

Under a draft bill circulating among legislators, the ARPA funds would be split roughly three ways. A total of $277 million would go toward broadband construction or services to support it. Another $225 million would go to water and sewer projects, with $125 million going to high priority projects in areas hit hard by COVID.

House Speaker Mac McCutcheon, R-Monrovia, said broadband became a priority in the wake of the pandemic, and the need for people to connect to services remotely.

"The pandemic itself helped us realize the need we have for educating our children, the connectivity that we needed (for) health care, because we're making advancements in getting connectivity with medical professionals to rural areas," he said Wednesday. "But we needed the systems to make that connection."

The bill would allocate about $167 million to health care, including health care delivery ($116 million in two different allocations; $30 million for rural hospitals, and $20 million for emergency responders, including $10 million for volunteer fire departments.

The bill also includes funding for telemedicine; projects to address sewer issues in rural areas, including the Black Belt, and compensation for counties that housed state inmates last year. Legislators would also put about $79.5 million into the state's unemployment fund, which could bring it back to pre-pandemic levels.

Speaker of the House Mac McCutcheon during the opening of the legislative session in the house chamber at the Alabama Statehouse in Montgomery, Ala., on Tuesday January 11, 2022.
Speaker of the House Mac McCutcheon during the opening of the legislative session in the house chamber at the Alabama Statehouse in Montgomery, Ala., on Tuesday January 11, 2022.

Democrats, who had pushed for more housing assistance in the plan, gave the Republican proposal a cautious endorsement on Wednesday. At a press conference, House Democrats said the money would help address serious water and sewer needs around the state, particularly in the Black Belt.

"Our concern as we discuss these appropriations will be to ensure that these monies address our most important needs first, in a manner that is responsible, transparent and accountable," said Rep. Prince Chestnut, D-Selma. "We must ensure they are distributed in a fair an equitable manner."

Rep. Prince Chestnut during discussion in the House Judicial Committee meeting at the Alabama Statehouse in Montgomery, Ala., on Wednesday March 31, 2021.
Rep. Prince Chestnut during discussion in the House Judicial Committee meeting at the Alabama Statehouse in Montgomery, Ala., on Wednesday March 31, 2021.

House Democrats praised the Biden administration for its work on making the federal money available, but said they would not oppose it as long as it did not change.

"If the bill as written is the bill that moves, I don't see any real opposition," said House Minority Leader Anthony Daniels, D-Huntsville,

The funds won't be enough to fully address the issues they confront. Extending broadband throughout the state is estimated to cost $4.6 billion. Lance LeFleur, the executive director of the Alabama Department of Environmental Management, said after the need of the nearly 1,200 water and sewer needs in Alabama extend to the "multiple billions range," though he said that ADEM will also be getting money from the federal infrastructure act to help pay for those issues.

"It's a start, though," he said. "It is."

Hospitals and nursing homes are slated to get $80 million, with an additional $30 million targeted for rural hospitals. Danne Howard, the deputy director of the Alabama Hospital Association, said at the meeting that state hospitals were doing their best to cope with the omicron variant, and struggling to maintain staff to address it. Howard said hospitals were hiring traveling nurses and had increased compensation for those working there.

"They've picked up the employee share of health insurance and paid additional money on top of overtime for difficult-to-fill shifts," she said. "But then they're unsustainable moving forward."

Other entities not explicitly included in the bill urged legislators to remember them when the state gets about $1 billion later this spring. Restauranteurs such as Parker asked the committee for help crawling out of the difficulties created by the pandemic. Holly McCorkle, the executive director of Alabama Council for Behavioral Health Care, said their member organizations — providing mental health treatment, substance abuse treatment and those with intellectual or developmental disabilities — had provided over $41 million in uncompensated care last year.

"People don't stop having a mental health crisis because a pandemic is raging," she said. "Actually, the crises get worse. We have kept our doors open every day during the pandemic, and honestly, we're struggling."

The regular session will resume on Feb. 1, after candidate qualifying concludes.

Contact Montgomery Advertiser reporter Brian Lyman at 334-240-0185 or blyman@gannett.com.

This article originally appeared on Montgomery Advertiser: Special session on COVID relief money opens with pleas for help

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