Mississippi Lt. Gov. Delbert Hosemann, left, and House Speaker Philip Gunn speak to media about the legislative session and the coronavirus on March 17, 2020. Credit: Eric J. Shelton/Mississippi Today, Report For America

Mississippi state, county and city governments are pondering how best to spend more than $2.7 billion in American Rescue Plan Act money.

Here’s what some state, local and national leaders and experts say about the ARPA funds.

Lt. Gov. Delbert Hosemann: “We are gearing up in the Senate, and we are looking at what other states are doing … 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. Obviously the state flag (change) was monumental, but when you’re talking about being able to replace water and sewer systems and making our image much better with tourism, and addressing health and infrastructure … This is an opportunity for us that we will probably never have again … All politics is local, and individual municipalities and counties will make their decisions — they are closest to the ground on what they need. But what we are offering them is to perhaps double their money … Right now, we are more interested in long-term, generational matters.”

Northern District Public Service Commissioner Brandon Presley: “How we use this money isn’t about party or ideology. The federal government pretty much settled it by the way the law is written. You can’t buy popcorn with it. You can’t buy cotton candy. There may be many things politicians want to do with it to put a feather in their caps. But we can’t expect a community in our state to be successful if they don’t have access to safe water, sanitary sewer and broadband. It doesn’t take a Harvard scholar to figure that out. Don’t you know, when the national documentaries were made about Sugar Ditch in Tunica in the 1980s, this would have been wonderful to have this funding to fix it. Guess what — today we’ve got it, and we need to find the Sugar Ditches of 2021.”

Kathryn White, National Association of State Budget Officers: “While a number of states are further along, Mississippi is not alone in taking a slower approach. Some of this just comes down to a state’s budget process and legislative calendar. We’ve seen both — special sessions or special committees formed. Sometimes committees formed by the governor, sometimes formed by the legislature … It’s definitely a huge, heavy lift, deciding how to budget for these funds in a sustainable way, and this is not the only new source of federal funding, too. We are hearing that most states are adding additional staff to tackle this … (In a NASBO survey of state budge officers) 44% of respondents noted their state or territory has set up a separate office or unit to manage federal COVID-19 funds … 63% also indicated they have added staff to handle the increased federal funding … 49% indicated that they plan to use contractors to help ….”

Shari Veazey, director of Mississippi Municipal League: “A state matching grant program would be very helpful. Some of our cities, their water and sewer needs are so great that their ARPA funds wouldn’t cover them … Some of our cities have more needs with road repairs … We have encouraged our cities to take it slow and not in haste. Treasury is issuing rolling guidances. We are asking them to move cautiously. I think some of the larger cities that have more staff, engineers and other staff, feel confident in moving forward, but most are moving slow and waiting to see where things go with the state after conversations with the lieutenant governor … I think that needs to be part of the discussion, maybe the state’s money being used to hire the right accountants, consultants engineering studies and whatever else to help the local governments.”

Eryn Hurley, deputy director of government affairs, National Association of Counties: “We have been able to identify areas of investments counties are making (across the country) and a lot is going into the public health response … It’s going into their county health departments, maybe hiring additional staff to run county hospitals or other county-run health facilities … We’ve also seen counties investing in services or programs to respond to more of the social safety net areas — nutrition, housing and rental assistance, child care, early learning — across the board. Then we’re seeing investment in water and sewer and broadband, a lot of that from smaller counties in particular, and another big area is workforce development … We do plan to share publicly soon examples that other counties can look at and use to implement more programs … There are 3,069 counties in the United States.”

Derrick Surrette, director of Mississippi Association of Supervisors: “A lot of counties are kind of hesitant to move until there is a final rule (from Treasury) … We are in constant contact with the state auditor’s office and helping our counties. Some counties are interviewing and even hiring accountants and CPAs … Calculating lost revenue is a process they’re having to go through … I think most counties are looking at the lost revenue factor and saying that’s our opportunity to spend it on roads and bridges … Rural water and broadband are a huge issue, however, counties are not in the rural water and broadband business. That’s not what we do. We do roads and bridges and that’s what’s needed now as much as anything else.”

Mississippi House Minority Leader Robert Johnson III, D-Natchez: “I don’t know why we need to say matching money (from the state) for local governments. If a local government can establish and verify they have a need, then take the money that we have at the state level and give it to the local governments who have the most need. The state should just help. Some cities and counties can’t come up with enough of a match to cover their needs. They’re all part of the fabric and lifeblood of this state … I appreciate the fact that (the lieutenant governor) is at least thinking we need to help local governments.”

Josh Goodman, researcher with the Pew Charitable Trusts: “The challenge states face right now, as they did in the Great Recession, is that there’s a lot of money, but that money won’t last forever. The question is, what’s sustainable after the temporary federal aid is no longer available? With the Great Recession, just as states were making a comeback, the federal aid ran out and they had to cut budgets again in many cases. It was a lost decade for state governments … We are urging states to avoid that budget cliff — it doesn’t make sense for states to hire workers now only to have to lay them off in a few years … This is an historic opportunity for states, and they have a lot of important needs to address, but they also have to think about their long term budget position and make sure they’re not setting themselves up for challenges in a few years.”

Tippah County Supervisor Jimmy Gunn: “As we understand, we are going to have to wait until the Legislature meets and get a local and private bill passed before we could give money to a nonprofit water association … It’s a priority with us, to help anybody that’s not on community water. We have one project with 20-something homes on it, and another with 10 or 12 … I do think it would be a good idea for the state to provide some sort of match to the locals — I have spoken with the lieutenant governor about that … We are just waiting for the Legislature to convene. We had thought there might be a special session that could address this. We’re just waiting to see.”

Starkville Mayor Lynn Spruill: “We are spending this money wisely in a way that will impact the most people with transformative projects. While water and sewer and broadband are allowed, a municipality that is already taking care of that doesn’t really fit that profile. Police, tourism, parks and activities in parks in Qualified Census Tracts, which six of our seven parks are in, I think meet those goals.”

State Auditor Shad White: “There’s a tightrope to walk here. On the one hand, they’ve given us flexibility, more time to spend this money than under the CARES Act, and you want to use that time to make sure the money is not misspent or stolen, and that it has a real impact. Still at the same time, this is for recovery, and we do have a lot of pressing needs, this requires a lot of planning and we don’t want to wait too long. I think we’re still within the bounds of what’s reasonable.”

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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.