Rep. Robert Johnson listens as arguments are made concerning Hester Jackson-McCray's House of Representatives seat Wednesday, Jan. 29, 2020, at the State Capitol in Jackson, Miss. Credit: Eric J. Shelton/Mississippi Today, Report For America

Several bills filed by House and Senate Democrats would reform the state’s welfare agency, which remains plagued in scandal and criticism after it squandered at least $77 million in federal welfare funds.

The Mississippi welfare scandal, which has received broad scrutiny by Mississippi Today and news outlets across the nation, has ensnared several high-profile Republicans in the state. 

READ MORE: Mississippi Today’s “The Backchannel” investigation of former Gov. Phil Bryant’s role in the welfare scandal

The known misspending occurred over a period of several years in part because of lax reporting standards and requirements at the state and federal levels. Leaders of the Department of Human Services and politically powerful individuals who misspent the federal funds from 2016 to 2020 often did so within the bounds of existing state and federal regulations.

No Republican lawmaker has called for a hearing or filed a bill to reform the agency’s spending based on the legal and journalistic revelations of the scandal.

“How, after two full years, is a system that allowed this kind of wrongdoing to run rampant still without a plan to prevent it from happening again?” said Rep. Robert Johnson, the House Democratic leader from Natchez who filed a bill that would require a legislative watchdog to regularly probe the welfare agency’s spending of federal grants and subgrants. “Since that information came to light, our Republican colleagues have held no hearings and made no attempt to get to the bottom of how this could have happened and how we could prevent it from happening again.”

Here are the bills filed this session — all authored by Democrats — that would implement spending safeguards, prioritize the needs of low-income families, or create methods to regularly track how the agency spends its federal funds.

  • House Bill 184 & House Bill 188: Create a board to oversee Department of Human Services, taking the agency out of the sole oversight of the governor’s office
  • House Bill 463: Use the first $40 million of Mississippi’s $86.5 million TANF grant on child care
  • House Bill 502: Increase the monthly cash benefit amount of TANF
  • House Bill 613: Limit TANF grants to serve people below 200% of the federal poverty line
  • House Bill 774 & Senate Bill 2794: Transfer 30% of TANF funds to supplement the Child Care Development Fund, the block grant that provides child care vouchers to working parents
  • House Bill 971: Loosen eligibility for TANF applicants, including removing up front job search
  • House Bill 1054: Require legislative watchdog PEER to evaluate TANF subgrants
  • Senate Bill 2331: Remove the child support cooperation requirement for TANF and SNAP beneficiaries 
  • Senate Bill 2806: Remove drug testing requirement for TANF recipients

Republican Sen. Melanie Sojourner of Natchez filed several bills that would increase restrictions on who can receive TANF and other welfare benefits, though these bills do not address the misspending allegations of the broader scandal. Those bills include Senate Bill 2804, which would prohibit TANF funds from going to people convicted of several felonies, and Senate Bill 2776, which would require TANF recipients to participate in community service programs.

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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.