Mississippi Today journalists Adam Ganucheau and Geoff Pender discuss how Mississippi is behind many other states in determining how to spend billions in federal coronavirus-related stimulus funds. 

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Adam Ganucheau: Welcome to The Other Side, Mississippi Today’s political podcast. I’m your host, Adam Ganucheau. The Other Side let you hear directly from the most connected players and observers across the spectrum of politics in Mississippi. As you can probably tell, I am on the phone, on the road today, but wanted to have a good conversation today with my colleague Geoff Pender. Geoff, thanks for being here today. 

You know, we were talking about, you know, what the big of this last week was, and you’ve done a lot of writing, not just in the past few days, but really the past few weeks about the unprecedented amount of federal funding the state is going to receive or has received through the federal stimulus packages that Congress have approved. Geoff, I guess, to kick us off sort of how much money we’re actually talking about here. And then I want to talk to you about where the hell state leaders actually are on spending this money or planning to spend this money.

Geoff Pender: Sure, sure. Well, mostly what we’ve been focused on recently is the American Rescue Plan Act. Depending on how you tally it, the state’s going to receive an excess of $6 billion, but a lot of what’s been keyed on is the Legislature’s going to receive about $1.8 billion. Local governments are going to receive directly a total approaching a billion, over 900 million. And then some other agencies are going to get direct money. For instance, human services is going to get an excess of $500 million directly for one example. And as far as where we are, where the state is and spending that money, well, we haven’t really started planning even for this. One thing we pointed out in recent weeks is that Mississippi appears to be pretty far behind most other states. I think the last check I did on it there were at least 32 states that had basically begun spending ARPA funds and then others coming out with plans. I think Alabama within just recent days has announced they’re going to spend a big chunk to try and resolve their prison crisis, but no. Mississippi leaders as far as the ARPA funds, Legislature and the governor appear to be kind of sitting back and waiting to figure out how to spend the money.

Adam Ganucheau: That’s really interesting. You know, what is the timeline, the timeframe in which they have to spend this money? I know that when the CARES Act, way back last year— it seems like a lifetime ago— was passed by Congress, there was a pretty tight deadline on states to spend that first big pot of federal money.

We’re not talking about that pot of money obviously anymore. To your point, we’re talking about the American Rescue Act or American Rescue Plan rather. What is the timeframe in which state leaders have to spend this money? 

Geoff Pender: For the bulk of the money, it’s got a deadline of December 31, 2024, for allocating it.

And a December 31,2026, deadline for actually spending it. That sounds like a long way off. That sounds like a long time, but one thing that should be noted in this even with those deadlines, I mean, it takes some doing. It takes some planning. It takes setting up some infrastructure so to speak to spend billions of dollars, especially billions of federal dollars. If you’re going to do it A, in the best way that’s going to help the state in the best way with some forethought and planning and B, if you’re going to do it properly where the feds don’t show up a year or two later and say, “You misspent this. Pay it back.”

Those are two key issues. And again, you know, a lot of people may not realize, like I said, just the mechanics of spending this amount of money. You know, that’s a big task. We don’t have thousands of extra accountants across all these agencies who can, you know, drop everything else they’re doing and figure this out.

So, you know, it would appear to be, you know, kind of key that the state leaders kind of get on the ball and start trying to get together on how best to spend this money.

Adam Ganucheau: Sure. I think setting it up this way, framing it, thinking about it this way is important. This has never happened before.

I mean, Mississippi, which is the poorest state in the nation by many different rationales and data sets has a lot of problems. We’ve had a lot of problems over the years, you know, funding basic government services. We’ve had more problems, you know, sort of launching new initiatives that are desperately needed, that many other states are doing.

And this is just a critical time. And I think everyone knows that and agrees with that. But, you know, seeing the general lack of action or planning or proposals on this in Mississippi is really just telling, Geoff, especially as you’ve reported it. And I think you mentioned sort of a second ago, relative to other states, Mississippi really does seem to be behind the ball in dealing with and handling this sort of golden once in a lifetime opportunity. 

Geoff Pender: Yeah. Yeah. I mean, one thing I try to keep in mind, I mean, this is labeled more or less as stimulus. We’re in uncertain economic times. Don’t know what the next, you know, six months, even is going to provide for.

So stimulus money typically I guess there’s also sometimes a desire to get it out there and get to stimulating. Anyway, one thing you mentioned a second ago, too, it’s not like Mississippi doesn’t have a lot of issues or problems or areas that this money could help. We have tons of them.

And again, that, you know, might make the task more difficult and time consuming figuring out how to prioritize things. And another thing on this, the longer time drags on, I mean, certainly I’m sure the Legislature could get together and spend some of this very quickly. Is that a good thing? The more time drags on, does this mean citizens and communities and community groups are they going to have any input on how this is spent? You know, probably the longer things drag on, the less inputs you would see from you know, rank and file Mississippians on how this gets spent. Other states have actually done things along those lines, created task force, brought in, you know, community groups and leaders and everything else.

So you know, again the longer this drags on, the more troublesome that might be. 

Adam Ganucheau: Huge chunks of this money, you know, as you said, I mean, it’s a stimulus. It’s because we are experiencing a time of economic hardship and, you know, what that looks like for real Mississippians is often unfathomable. And we have done plenty of reporting of some of those stories over the last few months during the pandemic. You know, you think about that and you contrast it with knowing that Mississippi state government has long struggled, long struggled with getting money into the people’s hands who need it most.

You know, our charge as journalists, I think our charge is Mississippi and it’s not even just journalists should very much be in the coming weeks and months watching closely how our government leaders from the state level on down to the local level are going to be spending this money and whether or not that money will be reaching the right people. You know, Geoff, I know that last week on this podcast, you and our colleague Anna Wolfe interviewed some people about one program in particular, a childcare program for working people in Mississippi and now that program during the pandemic, especially, has ultimately failed and how there’s all this federal money that could fix it.

You know, that’s such a huge example, big example of what we’re talking about here, how people are struggling because of what has happened over the last 18 is coming up on 20, 22 months since the pandemic started. Times are tough, and it’s going to be interesting to follow this money. 

Geoff Pender: Yeah. Yeah, definitely. That money you mentioned is part of another pot or staunch of this money, over $500 million that’s coming directly to DHS that earmarked for essentially workforce childcare, which is a huge need here. And again, we appear to be behind many, if not most, other states in that really, at least publicly, no one’s announced any kind of plan, the governor DHS on exactly how that could be spent, and you know, one would think that kind of money could really help a program like that. It’s sorely needed. 

Adam Ganucheau: Sure. Sure. Well, Geoff, as always, I appreciate sort of your work and all of these regards, but in following this money and, you know, holding state leaders, local leaders holding their feet to the fire and as they determine how to spend this money, we’ll see what happens.

You know, we’d love to see some action on this sooner rather than later, but so far it’s been largely crickets. 

Geoff Pender: We should note, as far as state leaders go, one at least, Delbert Hosemann has actually pitched kind of at least a general plan for potentially a large amount of this money. He proposes taking the Legislature’s $1.8 billion and setting up some kind of matching program for the cities and counties to come up with a project, take whatever money they’re getting from this, come up with a project and apply to the state for matching money. His thought on that is cities and counties could do bigger, more transformative projects that way. And he’s gone across the state and met with local leaders. I think they were fairly open to the idea.

But beyond that, no one else appears to be on board with Hosemann’s plan. And again, the Legislature as a whole hasn’t even held committee meetings on this. 

Adam Ganucheau: Sure. Sure. Well, very, very interesting times for sure. Geoff, thanks as always for being here and helping us understand it better. And thanks for all your coverage of it. We’ll be following along closely. Thanks for being here.

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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Subscribe to our weekly podcast on your favorite podcast app or stream episodes online at MississippiToday.org/the-other-side. For the Mississippi Today team, I’m Adam Ganucheau. The Other Side is produced by Mississippi Today and engineered by Blue Sky Studios. We hope you’ll join us for our next episode.

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Adam Ganucheau, as Mississippi Today's editor-in-chief, oversees the newsroom and works with the editorial team to fulfill our mission of producing high-quality journalism in the public interest. Adam has covered politics and state government for Mississippi Today since February 2016. A native of Hazlehurst, Adam has worked as a staff reporter for AL.com, The Birmingham News and The Clarion-Ledger and his work has appeared in The New York Times, The Washington Post and Atlanta Journal-Constitution. Adam earned his bachelor’s in journalism from the University of Mississippi.

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.