Mississippi is flush with cash thanks to a federal stimulus package. Leaders have done little to plan its spending, unlike in other states. Credit: Vickie King, Mississippi Today

The Mississippi Legislative Black Caucus on Saturday said state coffers are full and called for the state to spend $436 million on healthcare, education and other proposals to help improve quality of life for the poor, elderly, youth and minorities to help move the state from the bottom of most socioeconomic lists.

“When you didn’t have, we understood,” Rep. Omeria Scott, D-Laurel, said at a press conference Saturday outlining the caucus’ request to state GOP budget leaders. “But we have been blessed. And we have, now … Now is the time to address these needs.”

The Black Caucus — 52 of the Legislature’s 174 members — request comes on “conference weekend” as legislative leaders get down to brass tacks on setting a nearly $6 billion state-support budget (the total budget will be more than $20 billion counting federal and other funds). They’re also working to reach final agreements on other legislation and end the 2021 legislative session, likely sometime next week. House and Senate negotiators haggled over budget bills into Saturday night, hoping to begin voting on final spending proposals on Sunday.

Sen. Angela Turner Ford listens during a committee meeting at the Capitol. Credit: Eric J. Shelton/Mississippi Today, Report For America

Legislative Black Caucus Chairwoman Sen. Angela Turner Ford, D-West Point, itemized the spending requests on Saturday. She said the caucus’ budget committee did its research and numbers crunching on how much each initiative would cost and is not proposing anything “reckless or random” or that the state cannot afford. She said many of these requests were in bills introduced earlier this session that have since died. Some are in measures still alive and others are new requests, given recent updates on the state’s financial status.

“Any strategic plan that is going to address Mississippi’s needs should include and consider the plight of Black Mississippians as well as the white working poor,” Ford said.

House and Senate budget leaders last week said Mississippi’s tax collections are more than $500 million above the estimate used to set the current year’s budget and the state economy appears to be chugging along. They estimate the state will have $5.93 billion —about $173 million, or 3%, more in state dollars than lawmakers had estimated in November to spend for fiscal 2022 that begins July 1.

The Black Caucus request includes:

  • Expanding Medicaid to cover up to 300,000 people. Ford said the caucus’ budget document lists this cost at $159 million — which would be matched by $1.2 billion in federal money — but that the state didn’t have updated, accurate figures. Hospitals and numerous healthcare advocates have for years pushed for Mississippi to join 39 other states that have expanded Medicaid per the federal Affordable Care Act, but the state’s Republican leaders have refused.
  • $17 million for perinatal high risk management/infant services. This would help improve access to care for Medicaid-eligible pregnant or postpartum women and to infants, with a goal of reducing infant mortality and low birth weight. Senate GOP leaders also are pushing for more postpartum care and spending in the Medicaid program.
  • $104 million to expand chemical dependency programs in Mississippi. Scott said Saturday that the state has only 123 chemical dependency facility beds. The proposal would expand this to 500.
  • $3 million to expand dental health services for children and poor people.
  • $10 million for summer youth employment programs. This would match young people with entry level summer jobs.
  • $5 million for a housing initiative to assist low- and moderate-income people in accessing affordable rental and ownership housing and help revitalize distressed neighborhoods.
  • $2 million for after-school remediation program. Remedial instruction, Ford said, is extremely important now with the COVID-19 pandemic disrupting normal school attendance, classes and schedules.
  • $60 million for capital improvements to historically black colleges and universities. This would help HBCUs upgrade, repair and renovate campus buildings and infrastructure.
  • $41 million to expand the Home and Community Based Waiver program. This would help thousands of elderly and disabled people with assisted and independent living receive services at home instead of being institutionalized or going without care.

Lawmakers faced a Saturday night deadline to reach agreement on spending bills and were also haggling over a “bond bill,” or borrowing for projects statewide, always of keen interest to lawmakers wanting projects for their districts. If they fail to reach agreements by the deadline, lawmakers often file “dummy bills” full of zeroes to technically meet deadlines and buy more time for negotiation. Lt. Gov. Delbert Hosemann and other legislative leaders said late Saturday that negotiations were going well and they did not expect to file too many blank budget bills.

Lawmakers return Sunday afternoon for the full House and Senate chambers to begin passing final versions of bills. Legislative leaders said they hope to end this year’s session by the middle of next week.

Besides the budget, lawmakers are still negotiating on Medicaid rules and spending, criminal justice reform and numerous other measures.

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Geoff Pender serves as senior political reporter, working closely with Mississippi Today leadership on editorial strategy and investigations. Pender brings 30 years of political and government reporting experience to Mississippi Today. He was political and investigative editor at the Clarion Ledger, where he also penned a popular political column. He previously served as an investigative reporter and political editor at the Sun Herald, where he was a member of the Pulitzer Prize-winning team for Hurricane Katrina coverage. Originally from Florence, Mississippi, Pender is a journalism graduate of the University of Southern Mississippi and has received numerous awards throughout his career for reporting, columns and freedom of information efforts.