PHOENIX – Arizona Governor Doug Ducey sued the Biden administration on January 21 for demanding that the state stop sending millions of federal COVID-19 relief money to schools that don’t have a mask requirements or that are closing due to COVID-19 outbreaks.
The lawsuit in federal court in Phoenix comes a week after the U.S. Treasury Department demanded that Ducey restructure the $163 million program to remove restrictions it says undermine public health recommendations or face a refund request. The Treasury Department also wants changes to a $10 million program created by Ducey that gives money for private school tuition to parents if their children’s schools have mask mandates.
Ducey’s lawsuit said the Treasury Department created spending restrictions on the money Arizona receives under President Joe Biden’s American Rescue Plan Act alone and without legal authority. He is asking a court to declare the Treasury Department’s rules illegal and to permanently block enforcement and any claims for reimbursement of the $173 million he spends on the two programs.
“In Arizona, our top priority is to catch up with children, and we use a wide range of resources to do this, including federal dollars allocated to our state. Make no mistake, we will always support families and children, while protecting their right to choose an education that best suits their needs,” Ducey said.
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“Nothing in this underlying statute authorizes the Treasury to condition the use of (ARPA) funds on the following actions that the Treasury believes stops the spread of COVID-19,” the lawsuit states. “If Congress had really intended to give the Treasury the power to issue public health edicts to the states, and to recover or withhold (funds) … it would have spoken clearly on the matter. did not.”
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The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention recommends universal mask wearing in school settings to prevent the spread of COVID-19.
“By discouraging families and school districts from following this advice, the above conditions undermine efforts to stop the spread of COVID-19,” the Treasury Department wrote in the letter last week.
The Treasury Department began requiring Ducey to modify the programs in October. It was part of a concerted effort to force Arizona and some other Republican-led states that opposed mask mandates or were using pandemic funding to advance their own agendas to end such practices.
Ducey rejected the Treasury’s request the following month, and last week the Biden administration followed through on a formal request to stop using the money for the disputed programs or face demands for reimbursement or the withholding of additional money he is expected to receive under Biden’s COVID relief bill. .
Friday’s lawsuit said the Treasury Department initially recognized that states had “broad latitude in choosing whether and how to use (money) to respond to and deal with the negative economic impact” of COVID-19. But then it changed course and created new rules, the suit said.
The Treasury Department did not immediately respond to a request for comment on the retrial.
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These are two state programs the Republican governor created last summer to help schools and students.
Arizona’s Education Plus-Up grant program provides $163 million in funding to schools in high-income areas that received less than $1,800 per student in federal virus relief. Districts that require face coverings or have closed due to virus outbreaks are not eligible.
Another called the COVID-19 Educational Recovery Benefit Program provides up to $7,000 for parents if their child’s school requires face coverings or quarantines after exposure. It allows parents to use the money for private school tuition or other education costs, and its design mirrors the state’s existing school voucher program.
In a letter sent last week, the Treasury Department warned that the state has 60 days to remove anti-masking provisions before the federal government claws back the relief money, and it also threatened to suspend the next installment of help.
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Ducey created the programs in part to increase pressure on school districts that had mask mandates or other COVID-19 restrictions, saying they were hurting children and parents who had endured more than a year of closures. schools, distance learning and other restrictions. State budget provisions that banned statewide school mask mandates were later thrown out by the Arizona Supreme Court because they were improperly passed, but Ducey did not change the curricula. .
“Safety recommendations are welcomed and encouraged — warrants that put more stress on students and families are not,” Ducey said in August. “These grants recognize the efforts of schools and educators who abide by state laws and keep their classroom doors open to Arizona students.”
Arizona has received about half of the $4.2 billion given to it under the 2021 coronavirus relief bill, and the Treasury Department has said it may suspend payments if Ducey did not comply with his demands.
Associated Press reporter Fatima Hussein contributed from Washington.
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