Prisons, border wall: How GOP is looking to use COVID money

Sara Burnett
Associated Press

Chicago — When Democrats passed President Joe Biden's $1.9 trillion coronavirus relief package, Republicans called it liberal “pet projects” disguised as pandemic aid.

But now that Republican governors and local leaders have the money in hand, they are using it for things on their wish lists, too.

In this July 29, 2020 file photo, Alabama Gov. Kay Ivey speaks during a news conference in Montgomery, Ala.

Alabama lawmakers are advancing a plan to use $400 million of the state's share toward building prisons in what Gov. Kay Ivey says is a great deal for taxpayers. In Texas, a Republican-led county is sending deputies to assist police along the U.S.-Mexico border and 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 over COVID-19 precautions.

Decrying a “defund the police, soft on crime” liberal agenda, Georgia Gov. Brian Kemp announced $1,000 bonuses for first responders paid for with the relief money. In Wyoming, a Republican legislative leader suggested the money could be used to pay the federal fines of businesses that defy Biden's vaccine mandate.

This probably isn't what the bill's supporters had in mind when Democrats approved the American Rescue Plan along party lines in March, and some Democrats have complained that Republicans are misusing the 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 public dollars.

Democrats also are using the cash to fund their priorities, including expanding Medicaid benefits, putting in place a child tax credit and offering $4 billion in debt forgiveness for farmers of color. In Illinois, Republicans blasted the Democrats who control state government for handing out over $1 billion for capital projects and groups in Democrat-held districts. That included $250,000 for Black Lives Matter to do youth mentoring and $300,000 for a suburban Chicago drill team and drum corps.

The federal aid package provided $350 billion to states, counties, towns and tribes. It was billed as money for fighting the coronavirus, providing economic relief to small businesses and households, replacing revenue that governments lost during the pandemic and improving local water, sewer and broadband infrastructure. It also allowed for premium pay for essential workers, such as police officers, who faced the biggest health risks.

There were some clear restrictions, such as prohibiting funds from being used toward pensions or to cut taxes, and that led Republican attorneys general to sue. But the money came with more flexibility than most federal funding and a longer deadline for spending it. Officials say that will enable governments to deal with the current crisis and make more innovative, longer-term investments.

The Treasury Department says it has received roughly 1,000 public comments on proposed rules outlining how the money may be spent, including requests for clarifications of eligible uses. The department is monitoring expenditures and will require governments to repay any federal dollars that were used inappropriately, an official said.

But what qualifies as fighting COVID-19 or promoting economic recovery is often left up to the people spending the money.

In Galveston County, Texas, Republican county commissioners approved a plan to spend $6.6 million of its total $27 million in coronavirus relief money for security roughly 350 miles (560 kilometers) away on the U.S.-Mexico border. They say the money will protect residents from COVID-19 and other dangers brought by people entering the United States illegally. They approved a disaster declaration that says “extraordinary measures must be taken,” given an increase in the number of border crossings.

“We have a deliberate public health and humanitarian crisis unfolding on 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 deputies and five sheriff’s deputies to the border, including to Del Rio, where thousands of Haitians convened recently at a makeshift encampment after crossing the Rio Grande. Galveston County plans to apply for reimbursement from the state, spokesman Zach Davidson said, after Texas legislators voted to approve reimbursements for counties that assist on the border.

Texas Gov. Greg Abbott speaks during a news conference along the Rio Grande, Tuesday, Sept. 21, 2021, in Del Rio, Texas.

In some places, lawmakers say American Rescue Plan dollars intended to make up for lost revenue are fair game to use as they see fit. That's the argument Ivey and other Republicans made as a plan advanced in the statehouse to use $400 million of Alabama's $2.2 billion share toward prison construction. After Democratic Rep. Jerrold Nadler of New York, chairman of the House Judiciary Committee, wrote Treasury Secretary Janet Yellen on Tuesday seeking to block the $1.3 billion construction plan as a misuse of money, Ivey shot back with a letter of her own.

“The fact is, the American Rescue Plan Act allows these funds to be used for lost revenue and sending a letter in the last hour will not change the way the law is written," Ivey said. “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.”

Asked Wednesday about Alabama's plan, White House press secretary Jen Psaki said, “I would be surprised if that was the intention of the funding."

Democrats in Texas' congressional delegation want Yellen to block Abbott from using coronavirus relief money for the border wall. They sent a letter after Abbott announced new, tougher plans to fight illegal immigration, including shifting $250 million in state money toward finishing Trump's border wall.

The “costly monstrosity certainly should not be paid for directly or indirectly" with coronavirus relief money, the Democrats wrote.

Texas legislators are expected to debate how to use the state’s share of funds during a special session now underway.

In northwest Iowa, the Republican-led Woodbury County Board of Supervisors voted to use about $15 million in rescue funds to cover higher-than-projected costs for a new jail in Sioux City. Some residents said the money could be put to better use, but board members contended that it was a proper use of the money because the larger facility will allow inmates to be less crowded, helping prevent the spread of COVID-19.

In Wyoming, GOP Senate Majority Floor Leader Ogden Driskill suggested to a conservative online publication that a more creative approach to using the money would be to push back against Biden's vaccine mandate by paying any fines imposed on businesses that ignore it.

“It’s obviously COVID-related,” Driskill said.

Associated Press writers Kim Chandler in Montgomery, Alabama, Mead Gruver in Cheyenne, Wyoming, and Paul Weber in Austin, Texas, contributed to this report.