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

In Arkansas, Gov. Asa Hutchinson formed a committee of executive branch and legislative leaders to plan spending the state’s $1.5 billion in American Rescue Plan Act money. He directed them to include community, private sector and nonprofit leaders in decisions.

Tennessee created a task force that has held public meetings, and the state has already earmarked $1.35 billion of its COVID-19 stimulus money for water and sewerage infrastructure and $500 million for broadband expansion. These plans include matching grant programs for local governments and subsidies for qualified households for internet service. Tennessee also launched a support program to help local governments administer funds they are receiving separately and hired a consultant to do “pre-audit” checks that money is being properly spent.

Florida and Louisiana have already allocated millions in ARPA funds to help their tourism industries. Louisiana earmarked $300 million for local governments for water and sewerage. Florida is providing $1,000 bonuses to first responders, teachers and others who have soldiered on through the pandemic and child care assistance for health care workers.

At least 32 states have begun allocating ARPA funds, and others are actively seeking input and planning how best to use the money.

But Mississippi’s leadership, for the most part, has procrastinated on planning or spending the $1.8 billion coming directly to the state, half of which has been sitting in the state’s coffers for months. To date, there has been little planning or coordination among state leaders, or solicitation of input from communities. The money has a 2024 deadline for allocating it and a 2026 deadline for spending.

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

Of the state’s three top leaders, only Lt. Gov. Delbert Hosemann has offered any broad plan or actively sought input on ARPA spending. He’s toured the state for months, meeting with dozens of local government boards, business, healthcare and other groups. He’s proposed allocating as much as $900 million of the state-controlled money to match the $900 million local governments are receiving directly from the act. Hosemann says state and local governments should carefully plan and spend the money on projects “that have an impact not for one or two years, but one or two generations.”

But the other leaders do not appear sold on Hosemann’s plan, or to have any major plans of their own.

Gov. Tate Reeves has scarcely mentioned the money. As in most states, lawmakers in Mississippi will have the ultimate say on spending it. But other states’ governors have submitted their own plans or are working with legislative leaders on it. Florida Gov. Ron DeSantis pitched his plans for spending portions of ARPA to lawmakers in mid-March, shortly after the federal act was signed into law. Alabama Gov. Kay Ivey has been meeting with legislative leaders on ARPA spending, in part to figure out if the money could be used to help solve the state’s prison crisis.

With a previous $1.2 billion round of federal COVID-19 relief money to states, Reeves created a “Restart Mississippi” task force of mostly business leaders (many of whom were top campaign donors) to help plan spending and policy. But after he lost a fight with the Legislature over control of the money, the task force didn’t meet and went dormant. Reeves, who would have to sign off on much of the Legislature’s ARPA spending, has not publicly offered any specific plans or policy.

Last week, he told WLOX-TV on the Coast that he expects his annual budget recommendation to the Legislature in November will include his proposals for spending the federal money. In general, he said the bulk of the money should be spent on infrastructure such as water and sewerage.

House Speaker Philip Gunn likewise has not publicly offered any major spending or policy plans for ARPA money. He recently said he has some of his legislative team working on plans, but noted, “the good news here is we do have until 2024 to make those decisions.”

Gunn did join with Hosemann recently in stating that lawmakers stood ready to come into special legislative session — if Gov. Reeves would call one — to help with the summer’s spike in COVID-19 cases and deaths, to spend ARPA or other funds to help the hospital crisis. Both Hosemann and Gunn said the money could help pay nurses more and help alleviate a nurse shortage. But Reeves has said such a session wasn’t necessary as other emergency funds were available to shore up hospital operations. Reeves used these emergency federal funds to hire out-of-state nurses under contract.

In his WLOX appearance last week, however, Reeves said that if he had been able to control the money instead of the Legislature, he could already have paid the “health care heroes” Mississippi nurses with the funds.

The legislative leadership over the summer has been mostly focused on medical marijuana, Gunn’s proposal to eliminate the state’s personal income tax and a teacher pay raise. Lawmakers held summer committee hearings on these issues, but none on the unprecedented ARPA money flowing to state and local governments.

Some have questioned the state leadership’s hang-fire on ARPA planning and spending.

“What are we waiting on?” House Minority Leader Robert Johnson III, D-Natchez, said recently. “… This will take time to do it right. We at least need a special session for planning, or we at least need to be having some meetings.”

Johnson and Senate Minority Leader Derrick Simmons, D-Greenville, have both called for Reeves to call a special session to deal with ongoing pandemic issues and ARPA spending. Reeves has said he has no intention of calling such a session. His office did not respond to a recent request to discuss the challenges of administering ARPA and other federal pandemic funds.

It would appear lawmakers will wait until their regular session, which begins in early January 2022, to ponder ARPA spending. The Legislature faces many major issues and chores for that session, including decennial redistricting, the income tax elimination proposal and others. Some observers have questioned whether there is too much on the Legislature’s plate, and whether this will hamper proper planning and administration of the spending. Such delays in planning could also thwart any efforts at public and community input into the spending.

Gunn has said lawmakers need to be “very methodical” on spending the ARPA funds and noted, “We do have the luxury of time” with spending deadlines.

While the Legislature is used to spending the state’s money, it is not equipped to manage that spending down the line and is constitutionally prohibited from many of those functions. A coordinated effort with the governor’s office and myriad state agencies will be required, but there has been a lack of communication and cooperation between legislative leaders and Reeves during this administration.

It would also be nice for communities — the public — and state business leaders to have some say in how such unprecedented largesse of tax dollars is allocated. Mississippi has numerous problems like poverty, poor health and health care, and lagging education outcomes for which the extra money could be a godsend. But the plethora of needs could also make the task of where to direct spending more daunting.

It would appear this unprecedented amount of money flowing to Mississippi and other states will bring unprecedented challenges for its planning and oversight. And time is wasting.

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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.