The state Capitol dome at sunset, Sunday, Oct. 25, 2021. Credit: Vickie D. King/Mississippi Today

A special Senate subcommittee on Monday began studying how best to spend $1.8 billion in federal pandemic stimulus funds Mississippi is receiving as part of the American Rescue Plan Act.

“Never before in the history of Mississippi have we had an opportunity like this is going to provide,” Lt. Gov. Delbert Hosemann, who oversees the Senate, told the committee. City and county governments are receiving about $900 million in ARPA money, and Hosemann has proposed using much of the state’s share to match the local spending and fund larger projects.

FOLLOW THE MONEY: Mississippi Today coverage of state’s federal stimulus spending

A representative of the National Conference of State Legislatures on Monday told the new committee that at least six states have created ARPA matching funds for local governments for water, sewerage and other projects.

In a daylong hearing, the committee heard from officials from Louisiana and Tennessee — neighboring states that have already spent or earmarked much of the billions they received — and from state budget and audit officials on what the rules are for the spending the money.

“We spent about half of our $3 billion this year, and will spend half next year,” said Louisiana state Sen. Mack “Bodi” White. “We wanted to see how things go (before spending the rest).”

Louisiana has earmarked about $300 million for water and sewer infrastructure projects statewide, and has created a commission to work out details of the projects. It’s also spending millions on tourism, ports and health care, including extra pay to recruit and retain nurses. Although ARPA money can’t go directly to road and bridge projects, it can be used to replace lost revenue, and White said Louisiana is using $600 million to replace pandemic losses in its roadbuilding fund.

READ MORE: Should safe drinking water be a priority for Mississippi’s federal stimulus spending?

Tony Niknejad, policy director for Tennessee Gov. Bill Lee, joined the Mississippi subcommittee via videoconference on Monday. He said Lee, working with lawmakers, created a Financial Stimulus Accountability Group to help guide spending Tennessee’s $3.9 billion in ARPA money coming to the state and $2.28 billion to local governments.

Tennessee has earmarked more than $1.3 billion for water and sewer infrastructure projects, including $1 billion to match projects local governments are funding with ARPA. Tennessee is also spending about $500 million on broadband expansion and millions to help tourism and agriculture.

Mississippi State Auditor Shad White told the new Senate committee his office will provide any help it can in keeping state and local governments within the rules on spending.

“I’ve been telling (local officials) at the end of the day, we’re not the bad guys you need to worry about,” White said. “The bad guys will be from the (federal) Office of Inspector General.”

Sen. John Polk, R-Hattiesburg, is chairing the Senate Appropriations ARPA Subcommittee. He said he plans to have multiple meetings before the end of the year, and present its findings and recommendations to the Senate before the state’s legislative session begins in January.

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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.