Update: Lt. Gov. Delbert Hosemann and Senate Appropriations Chair Briggs Hopson have announced the members of the Senate select committee formed to study and make recommendations on the spending of $1.8 billion in federal American Rescue Plan funds. John Polk, R-Hattiesburg, will chair the committee. Other members are Albert Butler, D-Port Gipson; Dennis DeBar, R-Leakesville; Hillman Frazier, D-Jackson; Walter Michel, R-Ridgeland; Pita Parks, R-Corinth; and Bart Williams, R-Starkville.
Lt. Gov. Delbert Hosemann is expected on Thursday to name a select committee to begin holding hearings on how Mississippi lawmakers and local government leaders can best spend billions in federal pandemic stimulus funds.
“We are gearing up in the Senate, and we are looking at what other states are doing,” Hosemann told Mississippi Today on Wednesday. “… This year and the next couple of years and how we expend these funds made available to us will be, I think the longest legacy that the Legislature has.”
The Senate hearings would be the public’s first access to state deliberations on spending billions in American Rescue Plan Act money coming to Mississippi.
Mississippi trails most other states in planning for or spending the money. Some leaders have called for the state to get moving quickly at least with planning. Others say there’s plenty of time and lawmakers should take a slow, methodical approach.
Although Hosemann said he has had regular conversations with House Speaker Philip Gunn, the Senate will be moving forward alone for now in its work on how best to spend an unprecedented windfall of federal COVID-19 stimulus money. Gov. Tate Reeves to date has not presented any major plans for how he believes the money should be spent.
Hosemann said he and Senate Appropriations Chairman Briggs Hopson on Thursday will name a special subcommittee of appropriations, which will be chaired by Republican Sen. John Polk. He said he expects the committee to hold a hearing or hearings soon, before the Legislature’s regular session begins in January.
Mississippi is receiving billions from the federal American Rescue Plan Act, with $1.8 billion directly controlled by the Legislature and $900 million by city and county governments. Half the money arrived in the spring and the other half will be in Mississippi coffers by July of next year. Many other states have either begun spending ARPA money, announced plans, appointed task forces or are well along in planning for the funds. Mississippi trails in these efforts.
So far, only Hosemann has pitched any major ARPA proposal — for the Legislature to use much of its $1.8 billion to match city and county infrastructure spending, to make the money have a more “generational and transformational impact” than spending piecemeal on smaller projects.
Speaker Gunn and Gov. Reeves have been noncommittal on Hosemann’s proposal and have not proposed any major plans of their own. Gunn has said there is plenty of time to plan for the spending, with the federal deadline of December 2024 to allocate the money and December 2026 to spend it. Reeves has said he would likely offer his recommendations for how the state should spend the funds soon.
“Speaker Gunn has had his team working on this ever since the first guidelines were passed down in the spring,” Emily Simmons, a spokeswoman for Gunn, said Wednesday. “But there are no plans to have a formal committee or hearings in the House at this time.”
Gunn did join with Hosemann recently saying lawmakers stood ready to return to Jackson in special session — with medical marijuana as the keynote issue — and spend some of the ARPA or other funds to help pay nurses more and alleviate a nurse shortage or deal with other COVID-19 issues. But Reeves has declined to call a special session so far.
Meanwhile, many other states have moved forward with billions in projects and programs including massive water and wastewater infrastructure, broadband access projects, millions in spending to revive tourism and other measures. A report this month by the National Association of State Budget Officers said that 39 states (Mississippi is not one of them) have submitted plans for ARPA spending, and 31 states have begun allocating the money for specific uses. Of those states, 16 have already allocated at least 50% of the federal funds.
Hosemann has traveled the state meeting with local city and county leaders, and asked them to hold off on spending until the state can come up with a plan — potentially to match the local governments’ ARPA funds for larger projects. But at least a few local Mississippi governments have begun allocating their share of the funds, which varies by population.
Hosemann said some local governments have been submitting project proposals to his office in hopes such a state matching program materializes.
“All politics is local, and individual municipalities and counties will make their decisions — they are closest to the ground on what they need,” Hosemann said. “But what we are offering them is to perhaps double their money … Right now, we are more interested in long-term, generational matters.”
Some lawmakers and others have lamented that Mississippi has not begun planning for or spending the unprecedented federal windfall. Others, such as Gunn, have stressed the state should take a slower, methodical approach to spending the money.
House Minority Leader Robert Johnson III, D-Natchez, has said state leaders should already be deeply involved in planning for the spending, prioritizing needs in the poorest state in the union, and seeking community input for how best to spend the money.
“What are we waiting on?” Johnson 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.”
Northern District Public Service Commissioner Brandon Presley, like Hosemann, has been traveling the state, talking with constituents and local government leaders about how best to address the state’s most pressing needs with the federal funds.
Presley said he agrees with Hosemann’s proposal for the state to match local governments’ money. He said the needs across much of the state, and rules for spending the money make it “clear as a bell” how it should be spent.
“Water and sewer and broadband,” Presley said. “There is no ambiguity … We have over 380,000 Mississippians not connected to community water, and we have water and wastewater systems in dire need. This is a rare opportunity to use these funds in a way that not only has lasting impact on every single county, but is secondly a heck of a way to boost the economy.”
Presley said that in order to get the state and local governments on the same page with the spending, “For god’s sake, we don’t need to wait on planning.”
“We’re burning daylight,” Presley said. “The time for planning is now and we ought to be ashamed if we start spending this, or let these dollars sit and accumulate over the next year without a true plan.”