The vote came a day after a New York congressman asked the U.S. Department of the Treasury to take steps to prevent the use of the money for prisons. A House committee Tuesday approved a plan use $400 million of the state’s $2.1 billion share of American Rescue Plan (ARP) funds on the $1.3 billion prison project.
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“The answer to the problem of prison overcrowding and aging facilities is not the construction of more prisons, rather it is to invest directly in better care for individuals currently incarcerated and to take meaningful steps to decarcerate whenever possible,” U.S. Rep. Jarrold Nadler, D-New York, the chairman of the House Judiciary Committee, wrote in a letter to U.S. Treasury Secretary Janet Yellen. “The ARP is a historic effort to provide urgent assistance in a time of great suffering. It should not be used to worsen our national problem of over-incarceration.”
Nadler’s letter, which drew sharp criticism from Gov. Kay Ivey on Tuesday, came as the Treasury Department is finalizing a rule on the use of ARP money by state and local governments. While the Alabama Department of Corrections asked for guidance on using ARP dollars for prison construction over the summer, the state is relying on an interim rule guidance from Treasury in the use of money on the project.
That guidance is broad. A Frequently Asked Questions section on the department’s website says ARP money may be used for “pay-go spending for building of new infrastructure.” It does not say anything about prisons, for better or worse.
More:Decades in making, Alabama’s prison crisis is bigger than declining buildings, critics say
State officials are using a calculation from the Department of Finance of about $400 million in lost revenue from the pandemic. Supporters say the funds will lower the amount of money the state will need to borrow to build the prisons, and allow construction to begin immediately.
“What these funds can be used for is wide discretion for all the state to use this lost revenue part,” he said. “There’s other parts of that rescue plan that have stricter guidelines, but on the lost revenue part, there’s wide latitude for states.”
House Ways and Means General Fund chair Steve Clouse, R-Ozark, said Tuesday that the “only two prohibitions” on using the COVID money were tax cuts and investments in pension programs.
Questions seeking comment were sent to Treasury on Tuesday. Ivey criticized Nadler in a statement, saying “a letter in the last hour will not change how the law was written.”
“These prisons need to be built, and we have crafted a fiscally conservative plan that will cost Alabamians the least amount of money to get to the solution required” the statement said. “While our prison infrastructure is broken, our ability to govern is not. Same can’t be said for D.C.”
COVID has killed more than 14,000 Alabamians since March 2020, and the state’s per capita death rate – 2.31 per 100,000 – has been the highest in the nation over the last week. Democrats in Legislature have expressed misgivings about using the COVID dollars for prisons, citing those facts.
“How can we justify taking these funds allocated during challenging times, the use of these funds to build a prison?” said Rep. Laura Hall, D-Huntsville, before a vote on the use of the COVID relief funds in House committee on Tuesday.
Clouse said prisons could serve as superspreaders for the virus.
“I can’t think of any other place where you cannot social distance more than a prison,” he said. “Ventilation in these deteriorating buildings is pretty bad.”
“I don’t think we have a Plan B,” Clouse said in response to questions Tuesday from Rep. Napoleon Bracy, D-Prichard. “I don’t think we need a Plan B.”
It is not clear how losing the COVID money would affect the project. Clouse said supporters would “face it if we come to it” but also expressed confidence that supporters would not come to it.
Contact Montgomery Advertiser reporter Brian Lyman at 334-240-0185 or email@example.com.
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