Power plays for virus funds do no good for state


The "wish list" over the $1.8 billion federal coronavirus money has been an interesting little fracas since Gov. Kay Ivey brought it up last week, specifically implying the Legislature wanted to take $200 million to build a new Statehouse.

I was interested to see Senate President Pro Tem Del Marsh Friday night of "Capitol Journal," noting the federal allocation would likely be dealt with during a summer special session.

"We believe it is the Legislature's constitutional duty to appropriate those dollars. The governor has had a difference of opinion about that," he said. 

Actually, the Washington Post said many states are having wars like that, as legislatures are challenging control over $100 billion handed over to states to combat the virus. Mississippi, for example, voted to take control of the funding, enraging the governor there. 

Marsh said the funding doesn't go straight to the governor, based on legislators' interpretation of the wording. He said constituents would have input in the process - which he said they would not if Ivey were distributing the funds. He said she would have the right to a veto. 

He said he was "shocked" and disappointed at Ivey's remarks, saying that her staff had asked Marsh to put the list together, and it was approved by Senate and House leadership, before it was sent to the finance director as "a suggestion for topics of discussion." 

(Ivey's spokeswoman said the governor "certainly never asked for a list of pet projects," which is different than saying she asked for ideas on the virus spending.) 

Marsh gave other interviews over the weekend, and noted close to a dozen people in leadership had come in to discuss possible projects, with the list growing from maybe five items to 10 or 11. (Based on statements, I note hardly anyone else seems to want to admit being in the room.)

However, the vibe I get from Marsh and Senate Majority Leader Greg Reed, R-Jasper, is that broadband is considered a high priority, based on the difficulty rural students have had in doing school work from home.  The wish list has $800 million down for broadband, taking up nearly half the funding - although the need to distance work may make this one of the more plausible needs. 

Marsh told AL.com the Statehouse should be part of the discussion, as the Legislature has had trouble functioning during the pandemic, even down to access for the public and lobbyists. (However, he said on "Capitol Journal" it had already been taken off the list because it can't be used based on federal guidelines; I don't know which interview came first.)

I will say this: The building, located behind the old Capitol, was built in 1963 for the State Highway Department and was later renovated to include the Legislature temporarily. Temporary has evolved to permanent and has has been a headache at times. If you like Times Square and subways, you would love squeezing into the corridors of the crowded Statehouse.  Marsh noted it also has mold issues. 

So, yes, it has always been a whipping boy going back to Fob James, but they need something efficient. My only requirement is that the location is still too ideal, so they should tear down the whole thing or gut it, and then start from just about scratch. Eventually, it needs to be done.

But using this money when we have the current wave of the virus, with a second expected later this year? Not to mention funding the prison problem and broadband? 

Let's just catch our breath first and see what we can do with it. It's too early.

Press reports at first indicated Ivey said she would not spend the money, and she was a little more careful in her phrasing...but I finally figured out reading it and watching her in the press conference, yeah, she really did want the money. Marsh said she got $200 million anyway in the budget until they come back to a special session.

The Legislature probably has or should have the right to spend the money, considering the large amount that could be spread in so many ways. But it needs to be careful, as we all remember how much of the BP oil spill money was used to plug up holes in the budgets. I don't think the Legislature does well with windfalls, and now we have money to deal with a pandemic. This should be a team effort - and, God help us, this is Alabama, where the only teamwork is on a football field.

At the same time, demonizing the Legislature this early on for coming up with a list you requested, simply because you didn't like their suggestions or their idea of who spends the money, also demonizes spending that is actually needed in the long run. And it hurt relationships she will need to get a plan together. It comes across now a little petty to me. 

In the end, it comes down to this: How much, in actual, carefully projected figures, do we need to spend to directly provide for testing, protective gear, medical equipment and such things as that to deal with the virus? And with that said as a priority, how much do we need to spend that can address the secondary issues that the virus has brought up in everyday society, including broadband, prisons and possibly the Statehouse?

It is only fair to point out, as AL.com did, that the wish list has $75 million to reimburse the General Fund for COVID-19 expenses, $100 million for state agency expenses necessary to maintain operations during the pandemic, and $25 million for supplies, equipment and resources needed to prepare for another outbreak of the virus. My question would be if more money could be reserved for the next outbreak, although the question of deadlines and calculations could be a factor. 

To play devil's advocate for a moment, no, we don't get federal funds like this every day, and if they can be explained in a way to show we need changes to deal with issues such as the pandemic - along with other issues, of course - then it could be a godsend. To be able to deal with broadband, prisons and the Statehouse in one fell swoop would be an answer to prayers. 

However, we want to be careful first to make sure the pandemic needs are directly addressed. As we started this week, we jumped about 6 percent in cases in Walker County over the week before. As of Monday, nearly 4.1 million cases were reported worldwide, and 1.36 million of that was in the U.S. We already have 400 deaths in the state. 

We are not done with this virus. Even if it subsides in the summer, we have to be prepared for the winter. We must make sure we work with the Alabama Department of Public Health and responsible federal health authorities to make sure we are prepared. That funding should be first priority, and the everything should be vetted properly. 

In the meantime, fighting over preliminary wish lists over power plays has done us no good. Things like this should be done rationally and carefully, as it may be played to even greater advantage if we can leverage the first priority of funds wisely. We have time, and we should use it wisely. 

Ed Howell is news editor of the Daily Mountain Eagle. He can be reached at 205-221-2840 or at ed.howell@mountaineagle.com.