Alabama lawmakers are back in Montgomery this week in a special legislative session convened by Gov. Kay Ivey to hammer out a strategy to pay for an ambitious $1.3 billion prison construction plan.
Some elements are already on the table. The plan would build three new prisons and renovate others, and would take place in phases. There’s a possibility of a $785 million bond issue, and $150 million from the General Fund.
Then there is $2.2 billion in American Rescue Plan funds burning a hole in lawmakers’ pockets, so there are some who would poach $400 million from the COVID relief funding to help pay for prisons.
There are “many, many fewer restrictions” on these federal dollars, said Rep. Greg Albritton, chairman of the Senate general fund budget committee.
Perhaps. The federal government isn’t making decisions about how states can use the money, but expects any funds spent in inappropriate ways to be repaid by the states.
That should give lawmakers pause. And just because they can – assuming they can – doesn’t mean they should.
Alabama hasn’t suffered greatly from the pandemic from a fiscal perspective. The state’s 2020 revenue grew by more than 3 percent over 2019 revenue, despite the challenges caused by the coronavirus pandemic. That’s more than most state residents can say about their own household revenue. In fact, many residents had drastic reversals of fortune, with job loss, lost income, and inability to pay bills. Some people lost their businesses. Many others had unexpected medical bills directly related to COVID-19. Tragically, some had unexpected funeral expenses.
The intent of American Rescue Plan funds is to address those devastating circumstances, and is likely the reasoning behind the dearth of restrictions on the funds.
It’s difficult to imagine that any rationale to use the money for prison construction is anything but disingenuous, and more than a little insulting to Alabamians who truly need a financial rescue.