The Alabama Senate approved a $1 billion package Thursday for road and bridge construction over the next decade that would be nearly twice the size of the federal stimulus funding Alabama received for highways.
The Senate voted 25-10 for the proposal by Democratic Sen. Lowell Barron of Fyffe. Support came mostly from Democrats and opposition mostly from Republicans. Barron's proposal is a constitutional amendment that won't take effect unless passed by the House and be approved by Alabama voters in the general election Nov. 2.
House Speaker Seth Hammett, D-Andalusia, said the bill "has pretty good support" in the House.
Barron said the legislation will be "Alabama's stimulus program" and will help relieve unemployment that has climbed to 11.1 percent, the highest rate in 26 years.
The state Department of Industrial Relations reported Wednesday that Alabama lost 12,000 construction jobs in 2009. That included everything from roads to homes. The 12,000 jobs represented one-sixth of the jobs lost statewide last year.
Barron's bill would take $100 million per year for 10 years from a state savings account called the Alabama Trust Fund. The trust fund receives royalties from natural gas wells drilled in state-owned waters along the Alabama coast and usually receives more than $100 million each year.
The trust fund currently has $2.5 billion. The annual withdrawals in Barron's bill would end if the trust fund dropped below $2 billion.
Opponents said Alabama voters created the trust fund nearly 30 years ago to protect the royalty income for future generations and the Legislature should not raid it. They also said interest earnings from the trust fund help finance state agencies, and spending the $1 billion would mean less money for state agencies.
"People are treating the Alabama Trust fund like free money," Sen. Scott Beason, R-Gardendale, said.
Barron and the Alabama Road Builders Association have been trying to get the Senate to approve a $1 billion road construction program since 2008. Barron kept revising his proposal until he finally got enough support to pass it.
Alabama is getting $513.7 million in road construction money from the federal stimulus program. The state Department of Transportation has lined up projects to spend that money.
Road builders said Barron's bill would kick in about the time the stimulus projects are wrapping up and will provide thousands of jobs.
Lee Gross, president of Ozark Striping Co. and Ozark Safety Services, said many road-building companies would have been out of business without the stimulus funding, and Barron's bill would allow those businesses to keep operating.
Michael Thompson, president of Thompson Tractor in Birmingham, said his company has had to cut more than 300 employees, or 20 percent, of its work force due to the recession's impact, and the $1 billion would be appreciated by road builders and equipment companies like his.
"A lot of our friends in the road building business are out of business," he said.
Under Barron's bill, $25 million would go each year to cities and counties for roads and bridges, $1 million to short-line railroads that serve some Alabama industries, and $74 million to the state Department of Transportation for use in every county.
Barron estimated that the minimum amount to be spent in each county over the 10-year span would range from $5 million in Greene County to $54 million in Jefferson County.