After the head of the Department of Human Services warned lawmakers that the federal government shutdown could force his agency to furlough many of their 4,500 employees next month, House Democrats said they would draft legislation to close the gap with state money.
John Davis, the executive director of the state human-services department, told the House Appropriations Committee that his agency needs approximately $30 million in federal funds to continue paying its 4,500 employees.
Those funds won’t be available from the federal government until the federal shutdown, now in its 34th day, ends. As a result, Davis told lawmakers that by Feb. 15 he may have to begin furloughing many agency workers, whose salaries are paid through a mix of federal and state funds.
The Department of Human Services did not respond to calls and emails Thursday asking for further information about funds needed or the number of workers that might be affected.
Under a plan from House Democrats, the state would loan the agency money from its so-called rainy-day fund. Once the federal government reopens and the human-services department receives the federal funds, it could repay the loan, according to Rep. David Baria, D-Bay St. Louis.
“We have to make sure all these families don’t just get cut off,” Baria said. “Any time we’re talking about 4,500 families losing jobs in one fell swoop, it should be a top priority for the Legislature.”
House Appropriations Chairman John Read, R-Gautier, said whether the state can use its rainy day fund depends on how much money the state has.
“We want to protect all of our (state) employees,” Read said after the appropriations meeting. “But it’s going to come down to what we have in our reserves.”
The reserve fund contains approximately $400 million.
Read added: “I’m like everyone else. We just hope the situation in Washington gets resolved soon.”
The Department of Human Services receives nearly 95 percent of its budget from the federal government, one of the largest shares of any state agency. But dozens of other state agencies also rely on federal funding. House Democrats have requested information about what other state employees could be affected by the shutdown. Baria said if the impasse continues, many more employees could face furloughs.
Mississippi, which routinely ranks at the bottom of measures of health and poverty, receives the highest percentage of federal matching funds of any state in the country.
“No matter where you stand on (the issues causing) the shutdown, this shows what a precarious state Mississippi is in,” said Rep. John Hines, D-Greenville. “And when you look at how this would have an impact on those who serve and those we serve, we have a big problem.”
Davis also told lawmakers that the agency can keep its Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program, which receives approximately $60 million from the federal government a month, funded through March.
Davis also made a plea to raise salaries for agency employees, saying that 10 percent of state employees also receive the SNAP benefits that the agency provides.