Warnock, Cortez Masto voted for COVID-19 relief bill, but not for leisure projects it helped fund

Two new Democratic senators who are locked in tight re-election campaigns “squandered” hundreds of millions of dollars in COVID-19 relief money, according to a group tied to Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell, R-Ky.

The targets are Raphael Warnock, who won a special election in Georgia in 2021, and Catherine Cortez Masto, a first-term senator from Nevada. 

Separate TV ads from the One Nation group claim that Warnock and Masto “voted to allow hundreds of millions of dollars of COVID relief funds to be squandered on a luxury resort in Florida, a New Jersey soccer stadium” and “a ski area in Iowa.”

As the narrator speaks, dollar figures are shown on the screen for each project: $140 million, $15 million and $2 million, respectively. As the figures are shown, words on the screen refer to “Warnock’s spending bill” and “Cortez Masto’s spending bill.” 

To back its statement, One Nation pointed us to analyses by the Brookings Institution think tank and a statement from Senate Democrats. Spokespeople for the senators pointed out that leisure projects were not in the legislation.

Both senators voted for a $1.9 trillion COVID-19 relief bill, the American Rescue Plan, which passed 50-49 along party lines. President Joe Biden signed it into law in March 2021. 

The bill did not itemize the three expenditures highlighted in the ad; rather, it included $350 billion that could be spent by state and local governments, which is how each of these three projects were funded. The three projects could be called “leisure,” but local officials said they were intended to revive tourism once the pandemic was over.

The group and the races

The ads target Nov. 8 races that campaign watchers rate as toss-ups. Their outcomes could decide which party controls the Senate, which is split 50-50. The Republican challengers, Herschel Walker in Georgia and Adam Laxalt in Nevada, are endorsed by former President Donald Trump. 

One Nation is a nonprofit that shares resources with the Senate Leadership Fund, McConnell’s super PAC. One Nation is a so-called dark-money group, which is not required to disclose its donors even if it spends to influence elections. One Nation spent $125 million in the 2020 election cycle, according to the nonprofit OpenSecrets. That included spending on ads and contributing $85 million to McConnell’s super PAC.

AP discloses the spending

The ads cite a March news article by TheAssociated Press that said the three leisure projects were among scores of projects that state and local governments funded with the coronavirus relief money “despite having little to do with combating the pandemic.”

The money came from the $1.9 trillion American Rescue Plan, which included $350 billion in funds to help state and local governments. The projects represented a fraction of the $350 billion, but the cash “was desperately needed to save jobs, help those in distress, open schools and increase vaccinations,” the article said. 

Here are details of the projects cited in the ad:

Broward County, Florida, $140 million: The money went to build a county-owned hotel with views of the Atlantic Ocean and an 11,000-square-foot spa. Construction began in March. 

The county’s administrator defended the expenditure as meeting one of the bill’s guidelines, providing aid for “a planned expansion or upgrade of tourism, travel and hospitality facilities delayed due to the pandemic.”

New Jersey, $15 million for soccer: The money made upgrades to sweeten the state’s bid to host the 2026 World Cup. 

A spokesperson for New Jersey Gov. Phil Murphy, a Democrat, defended the spending to NJ.com, saying the World Cup “would bring millions of dollars to New Jersey’s tourism and hospitality industries, two sectors that have faced significant impacts from the pandemic.” Murphy announced in June that New Jersey and New York City had been selected as one of the World Cup host sites.

Pottawattamie County, Iowa, $2 million ski area: The county used the funds to buy a privately owned ski area. The county board of supervisors made the purchase because COVID-19 hurt tourism, and the county had plans for further development of the recreation area. All five supervisors are Republicans, the American Independent noted.

The largest expenditure cited by The Associated Press was $400 million to build new prisons in Alabama. Alabama Republicans argued that the expenditure addressed a public safety need and is allowed under a provision to replace lost revenue and shore up state services. Alabama prisons are widely considered dilapidated and unsafe.

Legislation for that spending was signed in October by Gov. Kay Ivey, a Republican. Lawsuits, including one filed in July, are attempting to block the spending. 

Loose rules on spending the $350 billion

Spending on the leisure projects was made possible by relatively loose rules in how state and local governments could spend the $350 billion.

Senate Democrats promoted the eligible uses as “broader” than those for a similar fund contained in the $2.2 trillion CARES Act, a coronavirus relief bill signed by Trump in March 2020.

Treasury Department rules said the $350 billion was for state and local governments “to respond to the COVID-19 emergency and bring back jobs.” Among the permitted uses of the funds: “replace lost public sector revenue, using this funding to provide government services up to the amount of revenue lost due to the pandemic” and “helping households, small businesses, impacted industries, nonprofits, and the public sector recover from economic impacts” of the pandemic.

Brookings said the money was “encumbered with minimal restrictions — a big departure from the norm of federal grants,” and represented “a bright green light for creative problem-solving by states and localities.”

Brookings is tracking how cities and counties with populations of at least 250,000 are spending their share of the $350 billion. As of July 12, $25 billion had been budgeted, with the largest shares for government operations (42.5%), public health (13.7%) and infrastructure (11.7%), according to the tracker.

Our ruling

One Nation PAC claimed that Warnock and Cortez Masto “voted to allow hundreds of millions of dollars of COVID relief funds to be squandered” on leisure projects. 

Both senators voted for the American Rescue Plan, a $1.9 trillion COVID-19 relief bill that gave $350 billion to state and local governments, but did not earmark the $350 billion for particular projects. One state and two counties approved spending the funds for hotel, soccer and ski projects as part of efforts to revive tourism.

We rate the claim Half True.

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