CHICAGO (AP) – When Democrats adopted President Joe Biden’s $ 1.9 trillion coronavirus relief package, Republicans called it liberal “pet projects” in disguise as pandemic aid.
But now that Republican governors and local leaders have the money in hand, they are also using it for things on their wish lists.
Alabama lawmakers are pushing a plan to use $ 400 million from the state to build prisons in what Governor Kay Ivey says is a lot for taxpayers. In Texas, a Republican-led county sends MPs to help police along the US-Mexico border and has pledged to help Gov. Greg Abbott revive former President Donald Trump’s plans for a border wall .
In other places, the money has been used to score political points or as leverage in partisan fights against COVID-19 precautions.
Denouncing a Liberal “spend police and crime” agenda, Georgia Gov. Brian Kemp announced $ 1,000 bonuses for first responders paid with relief money. In Wyoming, a Republican lawmaker suggested the money could be used to pay federal fines for companies that defy Biden’s vaccine mandate.
This is probably not what supporters of the bill had in mind when Democrats approved the US bailout along party lines in March, and some Democrats complained that Republicans were abusing it. money. But it’s the inevitable result of Washington sending money with few strings attached to places with very different and partisan ideas about how best to spend tax dollars.
Democrats are also using the money to fund their priorities, including expanding Medicaid benefits, implementing a child tax credit, and offering $ 4 billion in debt relief to farmers of color. In Illinois, Republicans have lambasted Democrats who control the state government for handing out more than $ 1 billion for investment projects and groups in Democratic-held districts. This included $ 250,000 for Black Lives Matter for youth mentorship and $ 300,000 for a suburban Chicago drill crew and drum corps.
The federal aid program provided $ 350 billion to states, counties, cities and tribes. It was billed as cash to fight the coronavirus, bring economic relief to small businesses and households, replace revenue governments lost during the pandemic, and improve local water, sewage and infrastructure. in a large band. It also allowed a premium for essential workers, such as police officers, who faced the greatest health risks.
There were clear restrictions, such as a ban on using funds for pensions or to cut taxes, and that led to the Republican attorneys general to sue. But the money came with more flexibility than most federal funding and a longer time frame to spend it. Officials say this will allow governments to tackle the current crisis and make more innovative and longer-term investments.
The Treasury Department said it received about 1,000 comments from the public on the proposed rules describing how the money can be spent, including requests for clarification of eligible uses. The department is monitoring spending and will demand governments to repay any federal dollars that have been used inappropriately, an official said.
But what can be called fighting COVID-19 or promoting economic recovery is often left to the choice of the people who spend the money.
In Galveston County, Texas, the county’s Republican commissioners approved a plan to spend $ 6.6 million of its total of $ 27 million in coronavirus relief funds for safety around 350 miles ( 560 kilometers) at the US-Mexico border. They say the money will protect residents from COVID-19 and other dangers caused by people entering the United States illegally. They approved a disaster declaration that “extraordinary measures must be taken” given the increase in the number of border crossings.
“We have a deliberate public health and humanitarian crisis unfolding at our southern border that the Biden administration refuses to address,” County Judge Mark Henry said.
So far, the county has spent $ 165,000 to send three constable’s assistants and five sheriff’s assistants to the border, including to Del Rio, where thousands of Haitians recently gathered in a makeshift encampment after crossed the Rio Grande. Galveston County plans to seek a refund from the state, spokesman Zach Davidson said after Texas lawmakers voted to approve refunds for counties helping at the border.
In some places, lawmakers argue that US bailout dollars intended to make up for lost revenue are a fair game to be used as they see fit. This is the argument that Ivey and other Republicans have put forward as an advanced plan in State House to use $ 400 million from Alabama’s $ 2.2 billion share for prison construction. . After Democratic Representative Jerrold Nadler of New York, chairman of the House Judiciary Committee, wrote to Treasury Secretary Janet Yellen on Tuesday in an attempt to block the $ 1.3 billion construction plan as an abuse of ‘money, Ivey fired back with a letter from him.
“The point is, the American Rescue Plan Act allows these funds to be used for lost income and sending a letter in the last hour will not change the way the law is drafted,” said Ivey. “These prisons need to be built, and we have crafted a budget-conservative plan that will cost the Alabamians as little money as possible to find the required solution.”
Asked about Alabama’s plan on Wednesday, White House press secretary Jen Psaki said: “I would be surprised if that was the intention of the funding.”
Democrats in the Texas Congressional delegation want Yellen to stop Abbott from using coronavirus relief money for the border wall. They sent a letter after Abbott announced new, tougher plans to tackle illegal immigration, including transferring $ 250 million in state money toward finishing Trump’s border wall.
The “costly monstrosity certainly shouldn’t be paid for directly or indirectly” with coronavirus relief money, Democrats wrote.
Texas lawmakers are expected to debate how to use the state’s share of funds in an ongoing special session.
In northwest Iowa, the Republican-led Woodbury County Supervisory Board voted to use about $ 15 million in rescue funds to cover the higher-than-expected costs of ‘a new prison in Sioux City. Some residents said the money could be better used, but board members argued that this was an appropriate use of the money as the larger facility will allow inmates to be less overcrowded, which will help prevent the spread of COVID-19.
In Wyoming, GOP Senate Majority Leader Ogden Driskill suggested to a conservative online post that a more creative approach to using the money would be to push back Biden’s vaccine mandate by paying fines for companies that ignore it.
“It’s obviously related to COVID,” Driskill said.
Associated Press editors Kim Chandler in Montgomery, Alabama, Mead Gruver in Cheyenne, Wyoming, and Paul Weber in Austin, Texas, contributed to this report.