States spend federal COVID aid on roads, buildings, sea walls

The 14-story Docking State Office Building is one of the largest and oldest workplaces in the state of Kansas. It is also largely empty, despite a prime location relative to the Capitol.

Kansas officials then plan to spend $ 60 million from the federal pandemic relief fund to help finance its demolition and turn it into a three-story lightweight building designed to host meetings and events. left.

State officials classified the project as a “public health service” in a report to the US Treasury Department, which outlined its plans for the money. While it might be a stretch, it’s fine under the American Rescue Plan Act, a large piece of legislation signed by President Joe Biden last year that gives states and local governments ample flexibility to fund $ 350 billion. aid dollars.

The aid was promoted by Democrats in Congress as an unprecedented infusion for cash-strapped governments to respond to the virus, rebuild their economies and support their finances. But it came when state tax revenues were already bouncing, leaving many states with record surpluses and notable decisions about what to do with all the money.

According to an Associated Press review of reports submitted by all 50 states and the District of Columbia, a relatively small portion of federal aid went to traditional public health goals. Much more public infrastructure has been moved. States are pumping money into water, sewer and high-speed Internet projects, as specifically required by law. But the PA found they were spending billions on roads, bridges, sidewalks, airports, railways, and buildings on college campuses and government agencies, while justifying the federal government’s liberal flexibility.

“To be completely honest, we didn’t need it,” said Troy Wemaster, chairman of the Kansas House Appropriations Committee, referring to the $ 1.6 billion the state received.

But the docking building needs to be demolished, he said, and the new event and meeting space could allow for better social distancing during a resurgence of COVID-19 or a future pandemic.

If “the building can be used during the pandemic, that provides a justification for using ARPA funds for renovation or infrastructure projects,” said Waymaster, a Republican.

A Kansas environmental group has asked a court to stop the demolition, arguing that Democratic Governor Laura Kelly’s administration did not follow proper procedures to demolish the 65-year-old facility that was built earlier this year in Historic Places. has been entered in the national register of,

Paul Post, a retired Topeka attorney and a member of the Plains Modern Preservationist Group, said, “There is a misleading action underway to demolish what is truly a perfectly adequate building.”

All states were recently required to submit annual reports to the Treasury Department detailing their progress in the US bailout. Documents show that states expected to spend about three-quarters of their funds. Well above the initial slow pace.

The Treasury has asked states to classify projects into seven general categories with 83 sub-categories. He could get his money back if he determines by the end of 2026 that the spending does not meet the broader guidelines of the law.

Governments have announced planned spending of more than $ 22 billion for the Treasury’s infrastructure category of water, sewage and broadband. But the AP identified a total of $ 36 billion for infrastructure projects – nearly a quarter of all planned spending – including roads, bridges, buildings, and public works projects marked in other categories.

In contrast, governments have reported less than $ 12 billion of planned spending in the Treasury’s public health category, although that largely includes things like “community violence interventions,” addiction services, and COVID care. 19 for small businesses. it was meant to do.

Some state officials may have decided not to use public health relief funds because they had other sources of federal funding for vaccines, tests, and health initiatives. For example, a separate section of the US bailout provided approximately $ 8 billion to state and local health departments. But the large influx of money may also have raised concerns about stability.

Although public health has always been underfunded, “many health officials have struggled to get their policy makers and bosses to commit to enrolling people long-term because it’s a lump sum,” said Dr. Georges Benjamin, executive director of American. Public Health Union.

Some states have not reported any public health spending with their discretionary US bailout funds. These included Florida, which received the fourth largest grant from the federal government. Florida spent $ 1.8 billion on highways, $ 1.9 billion on water projects, and over $ 2.5 billion on the construction and maintenance of public buildings, including the Capitol. , university facilities and primary and secondary schools, according to an AP analysis.

State water initiatives include up to $ 700 million for a grant program to tackle climate change-related floods. The city of Miami has received nearly $ 50 million for half a dozen projects that would nearly double the height of the dam in an area devastated by Hurricane Irma in 2017.

“The goal of the project is to protect habitats and businesses from future storms and sea level rise,” said Sonia Brubaker, Miami resilience manager.

Louisiana also did not list planned spending in the Treasury’s public health category. But the state plans to spend $ 863 million on roads and bridges, $ 750 million on water and sewage infrastructure, and $ 27 million to upgrade the domed stadium where the Saints of the New Orleans play football.

Democratic Governor John Bel Edwards said stadium grants are important “to keep the venue competitive.”

North Carolina Governor Roy Cooper, a Democrat, also supported a $ 46 million grant to upgrade stands, walkways, restrooms and racecourse infrastructure in his state. “Motorsports are part of the fabric of North Carolina,” he said earlier this year.

Alabama detainees are suing the Treasury Department to prevent the state from spending $ 400 million to build prisons. Although the state thinks all is well under the Treasury’s flexible rules, the lawsuit argues that it is an “illegal and improper use” of pandemic relief funds.

A coalition of more than two dozen construction groups, businesses and local governments is lobbying Congress to allow even more leeway to use pandemic aid on transportation projects.

Stan Brown, former president of the American Public Works Association, said that “having a good infrastructure that allows all of us to live and thrive” ultimately “leads to public health.”

Missouri, which has yet to rank most of its projects, is investing heavily in infrastructure, allocating hundreds of millions of dollars to buildings for community colleges and public universities. The University of Missouri’s NextGen Precision Health Initiative will receive approximately $ 105 million for upgrades, including finishing the fourth floor of a new building named after retired US Senator Roy Blunt.

“A lot of this was already about to happen,” university spokesman Christian Busey said, although no specific timeline has been set. ‚ÄúThen COVID hits, then ARPA funds are available. It’s a coincidence a strange time, but it’s a very useful thing for us.

Like Missouri, Utah has allocated $ 90 million for a new mental health research center to replace missed government services revenue. Construction of the building is expected to begin next year and will house, among other things, research on suicide and the impact of social isolation on children’s mental health.

The planned work aligns well with federal aid intent, said Mark Rapaport, CEO of the Huntsman Mental Health Institute at the University of Utah.

“What we are doing is directly related to addressing problems that have been exacerbated by the pandemic itself,” he said.

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Lieb reported from Jefferson City, Missouri and Harjai from Los Angeles. Harzai is a senior member of the Associated Press / Report for America Statehouse News Initiative. Report for America is a nonprofit national service program that places reporters in local newsrooms to report on secret matters.

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