States spend federal COVID aid on roads, buildings and levees

At 14 stories tall, the Docking State Office Building is one of the tallest and oldest workplaces in the state of Kansas. It is also largely vacant, despite a prime location across from the Capitol.

Kansas officials therefore plan to spend $60 million in federal pandemic relief funds to help fund its demolition and replace it with a three-story lightweight building designed to accommodate meetings and events.

State officials classified the project as a “public health service” in a report to the US Treasury Department outlining their plans for the money. While that might be a stretch, it’s probably fine under the US Bailout Act – a sweeping piece of legislation President Joe Biden signed last year that offers great flexibility for $350 billion in aid. to states and local governments.

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

Relatively little of the federal aid has gone to traditional public health purposes, according to an Associated Press review of reports filed by all 50 states and the District of Columbia. Much more has been spent on public infrastructure. States invest money in water, sewer, and high-speed internet projects, as specifically provided by law. But the AP found that they also spent billions of dollars on roads, bridges, sidewalks, airports, railroads, and buildings for college campuses and government agencies, justifying it all by the generous flexibility of the federal government.

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

But the Docking building must be demolished, he said, and the new space for events and meetings could allow for better social distancing during a resurgence of COVID-19 or a future pandemic.

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

A group of Kansas conservatives has asked a court to block the demolition, arguing that Democratic Gov. Laura Kelly’s administration failed to follow proper procedures to demolish the 65-year-old structure that has been added to the National Register of historic sites earlier this year. .

“There are misguided actions going on here to demolish what is truly a perfectly fine building,” said Paul Post, a retired Topeka lawyer and member of the preservationist group Plains Modern.

All states were recently required to file annual reports with the Treasury Department detailing their progress under the US bailout. The documents show that states have planned spending for about three-quarters of their funds. up significantly from a slow initial pace.

The Treasury asked states to categorize projects into seven general categories, with 83 subcategories. It can recover funds if it determines by the end of 2026 that the expenditures do not meet the broad guidelines of the law.

Governments reported more than $22 billion in planned spending for the Treasury infrastructure category of water, sewer and broadband. But the AP has identified a total of about $36 billion for infrastructure projects — nearly a quarter of all planned spending — including reported roads, bridges, buildings and public works projects. in other categories.

By contrast, governments have reported less than $12 billion in planned spending in the public health category of the Treasury – although it has been interpreted broadly to also include items such as “community violence interventions” , addiction services, and small business COVID-19 relief.

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

Although public health has always been underfunded, “many health officials have struggled to get their decision-makers and bosses to commit to hiring people long-term because it’s money. punctual,” said Dr. Georges Benjamin, executive director of the American Public Health Association.

Some states have reported no public health spending with their U.S. bailout discretionary funds. These included Florida, which received the fourth-largest allocation from the federal government. Florida instead spent $1.8 billion on highways, $1.9 billion on water projects, and more than $2.5 billion on the construction and maintenance of public buildings, including the Capitol. , college facilities and K-12 schools, according to the AP analysis.

The state’s water initiatives include up to $700 million for a grant program to address flooding associated with climate change. The City of Miami has received around $50 million for half a dozen projects, including one that will nearly double the height of a seawall in an area devastated by storm surge from Hurricane Irma in 2017.

The project’s goal is “to protect residences and businesses from future storm surges and sea level rise,” said Sonia Brubaker, Miami’s resilience manager.

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

Democratic Gov. John Bel Edwards said the stadium grant was essential “to keep this venue competitive”.

North Carolina Governor Roy Cooper, a Democrat, also championed $46 million in grants to upgrade grandstands, walkways, bathrooms and infrastructure at racetracks in his state. “Motorsports is part of the fabric of North Carolina,” he said earlier this year.

Alabama prisoners have sued the Treasury Department in an attempt to stop the state from spending $400 million to build prisons. Although the state says it’s OK under flexible Treasury rules, the lawsuit argues it’s a “gross and unlawful abuse” of pandemic relief funds.

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

“Having good infrastructure that allows all of us to live and thrive ‘ultimately’ comes down to ‘public health,'” said Stan Brown, former president of the American Public Works Association.

Missouri, which has yet to rank most of its projects, is also 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 get nearly $105 million for upgrades, including finishing the fourth floor of a new building named for retired U.S. Senator Roy Blunt.

“Much of this was already going to happen,” although no specific timeline has been set, university spokesman Christian Basi said. “Then COVID hits, then ARPA funds are available. It’s a weird coincidence, but it turned out to be a very, very useful thing for us.”

Like Missouri, Utah classified $90 million for a new mental health research center as a replacement for lost revenue for government services. Construction is due to begin next year on the building, which will house research on suicide and the effect of social isolation on children’s mental health, among other things.

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

“Much of what we do is directly related to addressing issues that have been exacerbated by the pandemic itself,” he said.


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

ABC News

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