State Rep. Robert Johnson of Natchez, the House Democratic leader, expresses concerns during an interview with Mississippi Today’s Bobby Harrison and Geoff Pender that state leaders are not taking adequate steps to determine best way to spend about $6 billion coming to various governmental entities in Mississippi from the American Rescue Plan.

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Read a transcript of the episode below.

Adam Ganucheau:  Welcome to The Other Side, Mississippi Today’s political podcast. The Other Side lets you hear directly from the most connected players and observers across the spectrum of politics in Mississippi. 

Geoff Pender: This is Geoff Pender with Mississippi Today, and I’m joined here today with my colleague Bobby Harrison.

Bobby Harrison: Hey, Geoff.

Geoff Pender:  And our guest today is Representative  Robert Johnson, III. He is  from Natchez and he is also chair of the House Democratic Caucus. He’s the House Democratic leader. Representative Johnson, welcome. How are you today? 

Robert Johnson: I’m doing great. It’s Friday. I’m going to be doing a lot more work than I intended to do, but it’ll be over with at the end of the day.

Geoff Pender: Right, right. A whole lot to talk about these days. Bobby, why don’t you start us out? 

Bobby Harrison: Well, I mean, we’ve talked about this some in the past, and I know Geoff has been working on some stories about this, but we have a lot of money. I guess a lot of the money’s already come to the state from the federal government to the what is called American Rescue Plan Act.

And  you’ve expressed concern to me in the past that that the states— I mean, this is the type of money that can be, some people could say could be a game changer for the state in some areas. And you’re concerned that the state is not making the proper plans to spend that money. So why don’t you to just talk some about that?

READ MORE: Is Mississippi up to the task of (properly) spending billions in federal pandemic dollars?

Robert Johnson: Well, let me tell you my basis, and it’s probably  the way I start every thought in terms of legislation. Mississippi is a poor state, but we have hardworking people, salted earth people who even though we’re poor and they work for minimum wage and they’re underpaid and their living conditions are in some cases are not the best, we’re here, and people want to do better and they want to see things happen. And I just don’t see the lack of urgency on the part of the leadership in trying to address some of the needs that some of these people face. One of the things that the rescue plan addresses that they say you can use the money for that is to provide premium pay for essential employees. And the governor, and the speaker for that matter, they came out there and said, “Well  people not going back to work. Unemployment is keeping people at home. So we’re going to stop accepting the federal funds.” When you stop accepting funds for unemployment, but sit in over a billion dollars that you could use to provide a supplement to employers, to pay essential workers a higher salary.

And so you would alleviate your  seeming problem with raising the minimum wage. You can provide that help and create a standard that employers and employees can get accustomed to and you can help people pay bills, live better and  put that money back in the economy. And we’re just sitting on our hands. 

They’re over there at the Senate having hearings on medical marijuana. It passed  on the ballot by over 58, 59% if you took the most conservative numbers. We know what people want. What are we having hearing about?  Let’s just come in and pass a bill just like 65 and go on and let’s get to work

on  meeting the needs of what Mississippians need. I mean, we’ve got roads, we’ve got where you can take some of that money is for transportation infrastructure that would aid you in providing better support for COVID related matters. Let’s build , let’s fix some  bridges. What are we waiting on?

That’s where I start. We have needs. Why isn’t there any urgency about meeting those needs when we have money that we don’t even have to take out our own budget that’s in a surplus right now. We don’t even have to take that money. We could use it. 

Bobby Harrison: Yeah, I think it’s about $1.8 billion, Geoff.  

Robert Johnson: I didn’t want to quote the bigger, but everywhere I look it’s $1.8 billion.

Geoff Pender: $1.8 billion coming directly to the Legislature. Now that’s on the top of I mean, actually we’re looking at, in excess of $6 billion total going to cities and large cities, some of that going directly  to education. But Representative Johnson, let me ask you something too I’ve thought about a good bit here lately. We’re talking about the Legislature having to in pretty short order relatively speaking allocate $1.8 billion. Again, you’re looking at a total of $6 billion in various places. 

Robert Johnson: Don’t we have, excuse me, Geoff. I want to make sure we’re on the same page. Don’t we  have until 2024 to spend that money?

Geoff Pender:  2024, sure, sure. Which, you know, is longer than the CARES Act was obviously, but nevertheless, look, spending billions with a B, it takes some doing if you’re going to do it right if you’re going to do ,it in a way where the feds don’t come back three years from now and say, “Hey, you did this wrong and pay us back.”

Robert Johnson: The feds don’t have Shad White working for them, so they probably wouldn’t be as bad.

Geoff Pender: We’re here in August. And you know, we’ve seen, like you said, hearings on medical marijuana, you name it. But there’s still no even rough outline of a plan that I’m aware of  on how to spend this money. And that raises some questions. I mean,  are we going to be able to properly do this? Again, I mean, a lot of people may not realize the administration of billions with a B takes some work you know, if you’re going to do it right and not just pass along checks. So where’s the planning at this point as far as you’re aware?

Robert Johnson: Well, you make an excellent point and we have lessons in how large the task is. When we first got CARES Act money, we tried to rush through it and we gave people jobs to do in terms of setting up a structure for applying for money.

And they just made it so laborious that people could hardly get to it. But I think it goes back to your original question. I think a lot of that had to do with people. We didn’t take the time and give people  the time to put something together, to put something in place where we could spend the money correctly, or people could apply for the money in a way that, you know, that met all of the federal requirements.

It takes time and you make an excellent point about that. It goes back to my original point in why I’m a tad bit frustrated.  This is $1.8 billion that certainly we shouldn’t wait until January to start working on. People are sitting on their hands this summer. They’re not doing it.

Let’s get together, at least have a special session and talk about planning or at least have some meetings. I talked to leadership. “But what are we going to do?” “Well, it’s not going anywhere. We’ll get to it. You know, when we get here in January.” It makes no sense. I mean,  we got a new strain of the buyers out there, and I won’t begin to talk about all of the hill concerns, but thinking about schools going back and they had planned to come back and have students come back and now they’re saying we got to wear a mask. I think I would predict that before the semester is out, most of it will be virtual learning again because of the impact of the Delta variant. And because of the fact that a lot of school-age children are ineligible to take the vaccine or people not sure about them taking the vaccine.

So here you are in this predicament where you really need to accelerate your broadband infrastructure development. And this money is sitting there because you can use it to help that. And we’re sitting there saying, “Well, we’ll see what we’ll do.” I just don’t understand. That makes no sense to me. I mean, literally  I felt that I was frustrated and appalled by turning down $9 billion of Medicaid expansion money, but this, we just continue to do it. And even Republicans who say they want to put money in the economy, they want to cut taxes because it’ll go back in the economy, what about the money that you’re sitting on that you can put into it to the economy before you do anything else?

So yeah, back to your point, and you said it better than I can say it. It is a huge task. It takes a lot of planning and a lot of time to do it right for a lot of different reasons. And we’re just sitting there, like we’ll come in, write a check tomorrow and there’s no big rush and nobody needs anything. 

Bobby Harrison: Real quick, your original point, you started talking about maybe some type of, I guess, salary or paying enhancement for essential workers. Who would fit into that category? I mean, I know that would be something that would be debated I guess during the legislative session. 

Robert Johnson: Okay. Well I probably would get in trouble with my young constituents and my kids who believe  don’t give the law enforcement any more money, but I would start with law enforcement.

They are grossly underpaid. I think that that is probably part of the problem with having people who are not duly qualified or adequately trained in some of our positions. I would start there. I was started with you know, firemen, first responders, that’s where I would start. I would enhance their pay.

And then I would go to grocery store workers.  I would probably go there at first, but it’s hard to justify when I look at, you know, what law enforcement and firemen and people like that are being paid and  first responders like you know, paramedics and people who are working in health care.

And you know, the other part of that is not just paying more, but trying to give some of these institutions some money. They can  pay more  and hire more people. But people forget about grocery stores. Those people have never stopped working and they can’t. They’re essential because people have to buy food.

If you stay at home, you definitely have to go buy food. 

Geoff Pender: Well, another thing too, I think we’ve seen hospitals here recently lamenting they’re having to  shut down entire wards or segments because of a lack of nurses. Could this potentially— 

Robert Johnson: But I know this because I have relatives who are nurses who live in other places who are traveling wherever they can travel because  they can make more money.

If we enhance pay for nurses, nurses will come here from other places  to fill in our shortage because we are paying them to be here and we are sitting on the money. 

Bobby Harrison: Yeah. Well, I know nurses who quit jobs here to go work in other states to make more money. Yeah, I hear that happening all the time. 

Geoff Pender: Representative, one thing I was going to mention to your point of you know, your point and my point, we both said about here we are with kind of a lack of a plan at this point, or even a broad strokes. Now I will say Lieutenant Governor Hosemann has been traveling the state talking primarily with boards of supervisors and mayors and city councils.

It looks like his goal in this would be to take at least the bulk of the money and enhance whatever the cities and local governments are getting. Essentially them come to the state for, “We’ve got X many million. We want to do this big project,” and then come to the Legislature to get essentially a match.

I think he’s leaning towards spending the bulk of this basically giving it directly to cities and counties. What are your thoughts on that?

Robert Johnson:  I don’t have a problem with that. I’ve said over a number of years that especially city, they have needs. They don’t qualify for a lot of infrastructure money.

And we need to figure out a way  to help some of our small towns who are extremely stressed. I think I’ve talked to Bobby about this. We were talking about the Jackson water problem. I talked to legislators in different rural small town areas of around the state, they talk about the fact that you know, we listen to people criticize Jackson, but  all our cities, even the small towns, have a hundred year old pipes and antiquated water systems that need refurbishing. So yeah, that would be a great, you know, use of them. I wouldn’t have a problem with that. I would just like to see it used and sending it directly to counties and cities to meet their immediate needs would be a great way to do it.

But the first thing I would do, and one of the things that they identified and that is to find a way to pay essential workers and do more of that. But to the point about the Lieutenant Governor going around the state meeting with counties and cities, look, we do things here at the Legislature all the time, and mayors

and the board of aldermen and supervisors don’t mind at all coming here telling us what our needs are. What I have also been frustrated with ,and I talk to the speaker about this all the time. I said, “Well, what, what are we going to do? We’re going to sit down and plan about working on something?” “Well, Delbert and I are going to meet.” We got 122 people in the House of Representatives.

We got over 50 senators. Why are we meeting in isolation with 8, 7, 8 people when we ought to have an open public forum about what the needs of what these cities and counties are, and we as legislators, we can come in and try to put something together. Why are there five or six minds in a room when you can put— well, there may not be 122 adequate minds in the House of Representatives, but there are more than 8 or 9. 

Geoff Pender: Shouldn’t the committees be cranked up on this?

Robert Johnson:  Let me tell you what. What people face in Northeast Mississippi is different than what people face in Southwest Mississippi. You need to have all those ideas in the room. What I hear you know, Rickey Thompson talk about in his area is not the same as what I talked about. Some of it finds its way working together, but that’s why you have a representative legislation, so you can have different views, different ideas, you put them all together and you do what’s best for the state. But I’m glad that the lieutenant governor is traveling and doing it, but I would argue that that’s part of the problem. Lieutenant governor does a lot of, “I’m going to look at this and I’m going to look at that.” And there’s just too many people that have ideas  to have it just singularly done by one person. You know, you can do the same thing by just having committees and hearings, and you can sit there and micromanage your committee right here at the Legislature.

We can get that done without it just being, you know, a bus tour. I mean, let’s get here and do some work. 

Bobby Harrison: Yeah. Back to your point. One of the points you made I always said that the Mississippi House of Representatives is truly representative of the people of the state in all  shapes, forms and fashions.

Robert Johnson: Oh yeah, yeah. Right. And I mean, when you say all shapes, forms and fashions, we got them all. I mean,  it’s an interesting body, but it makes you appreciate the differences in the different regions in the state and the different needs that need to be met. 

Geoff Pender: Representative, actually to a point you just made, I mean, we’ve seen in the past from Katrina, from CARES Act, you name it.

For this to work, I mean, the Legislature  can write checks. They hold the purse strings, but they can’t administer down the line the way this money works. It seems like this is going to require some pretty big cooperation between the governor, the executive branch, the Legislature, and then the agencies down the line and local governments.

I mean, let’s face it. This administration, this governor and legislative administration has not always been on the same page to put it mildly. You have any concerns on whether everyone can get together on this?

Robert Johnson:  I do have concerns. When I talked to leadership about, I mean, we opened up before we got on  air talking about whether or not, you know, things like special session those kinds of things.

Whenever I talk to anybody in leadership about a special session, and we’re going to get to work early on some of these matters, on the initiative of some of these  things and their response is, “No, we’re not talking. Nobody’s talking.” And, you know, I thought one of the advantages of having this unilateral leadership, one party controlling both houses and the executive branch, was that they’d all be on the same page and they’d all be talking.

They don’t talk. So, you know, that’s frustrating when you know, the governor, the speaker and the lieutenant governor are not— all Republicans are not sitting down in a room trying to figure something out. Make me mad about the fact that you’re figuring it out not including me, but don’t get me frustrated with the fact that you all are not doing anything.

That’s a little bit disheartening. 

Bobby Harrison: Well, on the first batch  of federal money, which was a lot, but less than the $1.8 billion. I think it was $1.2. It appeared that the Republican leadership in the Legislature did include the democratic minority in the process of spending out more money, which had to be spent a lot quicker than this money did, but they did include the democratic minority  in spending that money. First of all, am I correct about that? And whenever they do get around to spending are you optimistic that that will happen again?

Robert Johnson: I have a certain level of guarded optimism. The last time, it was more urgent and the speaker and I would talk more frequently. The reason it’s guarded is because  I don’t see a lot happening at all.  But the speaker and I continue to have an open door policy, eat with each other. And we talk, we call each other, and I don’t have any reason to believe that we won’t work together on this as well. Some of that was fueled by the dynamic of it being in a hurry and trying to make sure that because there was a real fight and whether or not the governor would take it and unilaterally spend the money the way he wanted to.

So some of it was born out of that, but when we worked together, we discovered that it was to our advantage to work together. Everything went smoothly, we got Democrats, Republicans engaged, so there would be as many floor fights. And that’s a formula that works if we continue to do it that way.

Geoff Pender: Any thought I guess the only precedent prior to this, at least in modern times, would be all the money that flowed in Katrina and subsequent, maybe only BP. In those cases, a lot of task force directed groups or whatever helped direct spending and follow through and monitoring. Is that something we might should be looking at here?

Robert Johnson:  Yeah, well, you know Governor Barbour did a great job with Katrina, but there’s some evidence you look back where some of these task forces were extremely heavy laden with friends and real partisan in some cases relatives. And there were some things people were not happy about, but they did lend themselves for whatever negative they had in especially Katrina to getting things done quick.

And I’ll always give Governor Barbour credit.  I would argue that if he were governor now, half of that $1.8 billion will be spent. Yeah, literally. I mean, it’s like, we didn’t sit on money. And I don’t have a problem, even if it’s motivated by you got a bunch of people with contracts with whoever who can find a way to make some money on it, but they get something done, I don’t have a problem with that. But just having the, the wherewithal to understand, you know, yeah, we can take care of some people I knew or friends, but it also takes care of a lot of the populace. A lot of people get taken care of in that process too.  And so when people could complain about, “Well, that’s his buddy and, and all these people make money off Katrina,”yeah. But we got a lot of stuff done quickly when people needed it. And I think the task force was helpful with the BP oil spill, which I thought was more balanced and got more done on the coast. So yeah, I think a task force would be great. But again, I think the fight would be who gets to say who’s on the task force.

I mean, that’s where we are in government, right? That’s where we are in leadership right now. Everybody’s fighting each other for control. It’s like they get control of everything. And suddenly we want to fight which one of us is going to control. So I would hope that we all, you know, figure out a way to sit down and get something done.

I mean, I hear a lot of criticism about people not working  and people not doing this, but man, people I see out there,  they are hustling. They are scrapping. They’re trying to keep safe. You know, they’re wearing their mask and trying to go to work. They’re doing all they can.

I just think that the best thing we can do is just do what we can to keep them moving and keep them going, encourage them and provide them with the resources that they need. 

Geoff Pender: Representative, one final thing I have to ask at least on this topic is looking at what all is on the Legislature’s plate this session: redistricting, dealing probably with the ballot initiative, perhaps medical marijuana. There’s talk of a total overhaul of income or doing away with income taxes or cutting them or overhauling the tax system.

The list goes on. Is this citizen part-time Legislature going to be able to do all that, set a budget and then also spend an extra whole bunch of money? 

Robert Johnson: No, not in 90 days, not effectively. That’s why I think we should be meeting now. We should be working now, even if they’re in short spurts, you know, five days in special session, five days a here or, for a bunch of hearings, that the legislative people come in committee meetings and then maybe a, you know, one or two week long, special session on a couple of issues.

You know, if  reconstructing the initiative would go anything like this medical marijuana we’re going to spend way too much time on it. I mean, there’s a simple thing to do, go in and add the district, which is silly, but add it and put it back on the ballot. But when you wait until January,  what you’ve done is rob people who are trying to get the initiative going on  Medicaid expansion and a lot of important issues that, you know, we could close the door on if we just got it on the ballot and got it over with  and move on since the Legislature doesn’t have the courage to do what it needs to do.

So, yeah. Nah, it’s too much. I mean, we got a pandemic. We got community health centers, for instance and hospitals. Community health centers are treating people and taking care of people who don’t have insurance. So that’s a ton of people in the state of Mississippi with no Medicaid expansion, and why not make sure we get them  this money in the hands of people who need it and to take care of those people out there to get more people vaccinated, to get more healthcare workers on the front line. I mean, all those things we could be doing now. And  we could do a lot of this in one or two weeks and you know, or work on it for a month with some committee meetings, like they have on medical marijuana, and come in and take care of it in a week or two.

But, you know, we’re just not doing anything and I don’t want to sound trivial when I say this, but September is rolling around. It’s about to be football season. Nobody’s going to come and work during that time. And in a month on the first of October, and God knows nobody comes to work when it’s hunting season. 

Geoff Pender:  I agree. I agree with that sentiment. 

Robert Johnson: Right. But I mean, summertime in a state like Mississippi, you know, Californians and New Yorkers,   that’s their vacation time. Summertime is the time we can get something done. It’s too hot to do anything. And most of our recreational activity is going to be done in the fall. So why not come in  here and all this and get some work done? It’s too hot to be outside. Let’s get it done and, and get a jump on it. 

Bobby Harrison:  One of the things Geoff mentioned was redistricting. That’s kind of gearing up the first statewide hearing or the first two statewide hearings will be held by the time this podcast airs. 

Robert Johnson: Meridian and Tupelo, is that today? 

Bobby Harrison: Meridian was Thursday. Tupelo is Friday. 

What’s your anticipation of what’s going to happen with the redistricting during the upcoming session? 

Robert Johnson: Well, of course, as a Democrat, I’m not happy with the way things are. I don’t intend to. I want to see change. I’m sure that most Republicans want to at least maintain the status quo  or see more seats elected.

So I anticipate a fight, whatever extent as a minority and party in the state, there can be a fight, but I anticipate there being a protracted fight about this issue that’ll end up in the courts.

Bobby Harrison: Well, it seems to me that some of the areas that are growing, most counties in the state lost population or didn’t gain population, but the counties that grew are thought of primarily as Republican counties. But I think you’re seeing a little bit of what you’re seeing nationally. Some of those counties are suburban counties and they’re growing and maybe it’s not as pronounced on a national level, but I do think there’s a democratic base growing in some of those counties that could be interesting to look at  during the upcoming session. 

Robert Johnson: Yeah. I think, you know, DeSoto County is a  prime example, I think just like what happened with the Hester McCray district I think, is going to happen with another one.

I mean, I think, you know, it changes. I kind of believe, I mean, this is just speculation, but areas like around Oxford, I think to certain standards, in some pockets of Rankin County and Madison County, there are demographic changes. People are moving out of Jackson into those areas, and you’re gonna see not as polarized of numbers in terms of, you know, partisan politics.

And so there are going to be some opportunities there. And so,  it’s incumbent among us as Democrats and as African-Americans to take advantage of that where we can. And I don’t, you know, I don’t expect that Republican leadership is going to lay down and say, “Okay, that seems fine.” Even though if you get some of them over a glass of whiskey in a back room and say, “How do you like the super majority?” They say it’s terrible. You know, it’s like,  you say you want it, but when you get it, you realize maybe I didn’t want this much.  It would  be helpful to some people.  They would never say it, but I know it’d be helpful to them to have more Democrats there and then they could have somebody that, you know, they can have an actual enemy they could fight with without fighting with each other. So we may be able to work something out, but I expect it to be pretty involved. I mean, one of the problems we always have as Democrats is that there are people in our party who like the cushiony 80% district, and you got to bring them in and say, “Look, this won’t work. You got to give up some of those numbers to create more, get you some more help here at the  Legislature.” So it’s going to be really involved. We are working on it now. They won’t have any statistical numbers that we can actually work with until sometime after the 15th or 16th of this month.

But we are gearing up. We’re looking at old maps. 

Geoff Pender: Representative Johnson, we appreciate you talking with us today. And it sounds like we might have a busy summer, but regardless, we’re going to have a busy next year. And we appreciate you sharing your thoughts with us today. 

Bobby Harrison: Yeah, I enjoyed talking to you.

 Robert Johnson: Well, I appreciate y’all having me all the time.

Adam Ganucheau: As we cover the biggest political stories in this state, you don’t want to miss an episode of The Other Side. We’ll bring you more reporting from every corner of the state, sharing the voices of Mississippians and how they’re impacted by the news. So, what do we need from you, the listener? We need your feedback and support.

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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.

Bobby Harrison, Mississippi Today’s senior capitol reporter, covers politics, government and the Mississippi State Legislature. He also writes a weekly news analysis which is co-published in newspapers statewide. A native of Laurel, Bobby joined our team June 2018 after working for the North Mississippi Daily Journal in Tupelo since 1984. He is president of the Mississippi Capitol Press Corps Association and works with the Mississippi State University Stennis Institute to organize press luncheons. Bobby has a bachelor's in American Studies from the University of Southern Mississippi and has received multiple awards from the Mississippi Press Association, including the Bill Minor Best Investigative/In-depth Reporting and Best Commentary Column.