Since Gov. Kay Ivey made known the existence of the “wish list” of spending items the Legislature proposed for the approximate $1.8 billion in federal relief money, some lawmakers have been up in arms.
But the “wish list” wasn’t a hastily drawn-up inventory of hypothetical projects as some have suggested. The Legislative Services Agency formatted it with columns for each item, a price tag and a justification of how it might be related to CARES Act expenditures.
From radio talk show appearances to suspect polls, the Legislature has launched an all-out smear campaign against the popular governor.
The U.S. government’s Phase 3 aid package, known as the CARES Act, is to provide relief for states and individual local governments to combat the crisis caused by the COVID-19 pandemic. After specific allocation, the state still has approximately $1.8 billion on hand that must be spent by Dec. 31, 2020.
Ivey said she never wanted control of the funds but suggested a six-person committee comprised of the two minority leaders and the four budget chairmen to decide how the funds would be spent. But legislative negotiators led by Senate President Pro Tem Del Marsh, R-Anniston, rejected Ivey’s plan because they wanted tight control over the funds — with only input from key lawmakers and lobbyists, according to those who were aware of the talks.
But the move to embarrass and diminish Ivey’s standing isn’t working, and according to Republican lawmakers who spoke with APR on background, it is the Legislature, not Ivey, that’s taking a beating in the court of public opinion.
Even at the highest levels of the federal government, the Legislature’s plan has received condemnation and entered into the debate on how flexible the CARES Act should be with POLITICO PRO writing, “And some [U.S.] Senate Republicans are also pointing to the Alabama state legislature’s plans to use some of its federal dollars to build a new state house — an idea Republican Sen. Richard Shelby of Alabama described as ‘stupid’ — to back up their case.”
One of the most vocal of Ivey’s critics is State Sen. Chris Elliott, who has taken to talk radio to bash the governor.
In a recent appearance on “The Jeff Poor Show” on Huntsville radio’s WVNN, Elliott said, “I think it’s very disingenuous to put that list out there in the manner the governor did.”
He also said that Ivey was wrong “to take a brainstorming session, a spit-balling type of document between staff members and the highest levels of leadership trying to make the decision, or at least move the ball on what we can and cannot use this money for — I mean, there are dozens of those lists floating around, right.”
Elliott claims the list was a “brainstorming session, a spit-balling type of document.”
The document, however, was an official communication sent by Kirk Fulford, deputy director of the Legislative Services Agency Financial Services, to Kelly Butler, the director of the Alabama Department of Finance. It was copied to Marsh, Speaker of the House Mac McCutcheon, and Othni Lathram, the director of the Legislative Services Agency.
Elliott also claimed there were “dozens of those lists floating around.”
When APR asked Elliott for any copies he has seen, he said, “I think they’re probably many lists floating around as there are legislators; however, I doubt very many of them would be willing to share them given recent events,” Elliott wrote in an email. “It’s probably much more prudent to wait for additional guidance from treasury and see if Congress weighs in on allowed uses before turning what are hypothetical uses into political fodder.”
Elliott is not alone. Marsh, State Rep. Mike Ball, R-Madison, and others have taken to Republican-friendly media to bash Ivey.
However, the list sent to Butler is an official-looking document that was part of some earlier discussions.
Sent: Monday, April 27, 2020 3:39 PM
To: Butler, Kelly
Cc: Del Marsh; Mccutcheon, Mac; Othni Lathram
Subject: Coronavirus Relief Fund Project List
Good afternoon. As discussed earlier, please find the attached list of projects that the Pro Tempore and Speaker would like to discuss with you and the Governor as potential options for the use of some of the federal funds allocated to the state from the Coronavirus Relief Fund.
Kirk H. Fulford
Legislative Services Agency Fiscal Division
Far from being brainstorming or spit-balling, the document was well laid out for a real discussion. But once the idea of building a new $200 million State House became public, the stance was not to admit a mistake but to attack Ivey’s credibility.
A poll commissioned by the House and Senate GOP Caucuses appeared in an online publication saying that Republicans trusted the Legislature more than Ivey to administer the CARES Act funding.
The question the pollsters asked was, “Do you believe Governor Ivey should have sole discretion over how to spend any federal stimulus money coming to Alabama, or should the money be appropriated through the normal legislative process allowing for public input?”
According to a poll conducted by Cygnal, 67.5 percent answered the Legislature should appropriate the money, compared to only 17.8 percent saying Ivey should have sole discretion.
“This probabilistic survey was conducted May 7, 2020 – May 10, 2020, with 607 likely conservative constituents,” wrote the survey’s authors. “It has a margin of error of ±3.98%. Known registered voters were interviewed via live agents calling cell phones and landlines, and received invitations to participate in the survey via SMS and email with a secure link tied to their voter record. This survey was weighted to a conservative constituent universe.”
Pollsters APR spoke with who didn’t want to get in the middle of a Republican squabble believe the question was loaded to draw a negative response toward Ivey.
“First, if you’re polling likely conservatives, and weighting it to a ‘conservative constituent universe,’ you’re likely to hit a number of individuals who understand it’s the Legislature’s job to appropriate money, so that’s easy,” said a pollster. “Secondly, when you add, ‘Ivey should have sole discretion,’ verses ‘public input’ you’re going to move the needle in the Legislature’s favor.”
Cygnal’s founder, speaking by text to APR, declined to comment on the poll saying, “I can’t talk about it.” He also said, “Gotta love it when a memo that says ‘DON’T RELEASE’ makes it to the media.”
As the other pollsters point out, Cygnal has an excellent reputation, but with any survey, it is how you ask the questions.
The document sent to Butler was a serious one and not a frivolous request, as some have suggested. The Republican lawmakers who compiled the items thought their ideas were a good use of federal funds intended to be used to fight the dire effects of the COVID-19 pandemic.
The leaders who constructed the list, however, used the filmiest of justifications for spending the money on things like a robotics park and other items not remotely related to the coronavirus crisis.
To justify the Robotics Technology Park, they claim that the money should be used to “expand digital manufacturing training and technologies to allow increased production with less dependency on human touch (to improve health safety on the job).”
No one has explained how this idea helps those individuals, business and institutions who have been harmed by COVID-19’s effects on health, safety or income.
APR asked the Ivey administration how she was handling the rash of criticism that was being leveled at her.
“As Governor Ivey leads our state forward during this unprecedented time, she will continue prioritizing what is best for the people of Alabama,” said Ivey’s Press Secretary Gina Maiola. “Going back to her time as lieutenant governor and even before, she has always maintained a strong relationship with members of the Legislature, and many of them she calls good friends.”
Maiola said over the last few days, Ivey has heard from many of the members who want to work with her and who are also interested in how we can move forward.
“She is a firm believer in the concept that if you can’t take the criticism, you shouldn’t sign up for the job. She looks forward to continually working with those who share her goal of leading Alabama past this health crisis and getting our economy running on all cylinders again,” the governor’s press secretary said.
Ivey let the public in on the dirty secret that some lawmakers want to use the money for pork-barrel spending. But instead of being ashamed, they are throwing bombs at her.