The Mississippi Senate almost unanimously approved spending $177.3 million of federal American Rescue Plan Act money Monday with the only questions and votes of “present” coming from Democratic lawmakers who wanted more specificity about the spending.
Senate leaders also outlined to the 52-member chamber their plan to spend the rest of the state’s $1.8 billion in ARPA money. Senate Appropriations Chair Briggs Hopson, R-Vicksburg, said bills to spend the bulk of the funds will be presented to the chamber in the coming days. But the spending must also be agreed to by the House, which has yet to release its own plan for the spending.
The largest expenditure in the Senate plan is $750 million to match spending by cities and counties in Mississippi, who are directly receiving about $900 million in ARPA funds. The state match would be available for cities and counties spending their own allocations on water and sewerage infrastructure, and for rural water associations.
Lt. Gov. Delbert Hosemann has called for Mississippi to spend its federal pandemic stimulus billions on “transformational” and generational projects, such as major public works repairs and upgrades. He said Monday that cities and counties that have already spent their stimulus money on raises for workers or other non-infrastructure items would likely be out of luck on receiving a match from the state under the Senate plan.
“We are trying to do things with this money that will be transformational,” Hosemann said, “and last a lot longer than two years from now when this drug of all this money the federal government is giving us dries up.”
Over several weeks before this legislative session, the Senate held numerous hearings and asked local governments, state agencies, universities and nonprofits for input on how the Legislature should spend $1.8 billion in federal pandemic stimulus money. The groups provided the special Senate subcommittee with nearly $7 billion in requests. Hosemann for months has also traveled the state and met with many city and county leaders, urging them to spend money on big infrastructure projects.
On Monday, the Senate passed four spending bills for $177.3 million for Child Protective Services, the Department of Mental Health, the state National Guard and the Mississippi Emergency Management Agency.
Hosemann said these agencies had immediate needs from pandemic expenses, and noted that the state faces federal court mandates to improve its troubled Child Protective Services and Department of Mental Health.
“We want to get to where we can show the federal courts that Mississippi can run our own Child Protection Services and the same with Mental Health,” Hosemann said.
The American Rescue Plan was passed by Congress last year to provide help to local and state governments and to individuals in dealing with the fallout of the COVID-19 pandemic. While all congressional Republicans voted against the program, the expenditure of the funds had strong support Monday from state Senate Republicans. Besides all voting for the measure, many wished to be added as co authors to the first four spending bills.
With the bills passed Monday, “we tried to get to the point to offer the best care we can to mental health patients and the best protection we can to children,” said Sen. John Polk, R-Hattiesburg, who headed up the special Senate committee that studied the best method of spending the federal funds.
Sen. Angela Turner Ford, D-West Point, was among a handful of Democrats who voted present on some of the bills. She said she wanted more detail on just how the agencies could spend the funds and what would occur when funds allocated for recurring expenses, such as for hiring additional personnel, were exhausted.
Based on the questioning of Turner Ford and other Democrats, Polk did provide some additional details, such as the hiring of 202 employees at Child Protection Services, and the addition of 60 beds to care for mental health patients. Plus, the bills provided for additional funding to train law enforcement to deal with mental health patients and help pay for a special phone number (988) for people to call to request emergency assistance in dealing with someone suffering from mental illness.
Sen. John Horhn, D-Jackson, said it seemed the legislation would take “recurring costs and pay for them with one-time money.”
Polk said the additional 202 employees at Child Protection Services would help deal with a backlog in the foster care programs. But over the years, the number of employees would be reduced through attrition as the backlog is eliminated.
Horhn also expressed concerned that it did not seem that Child Protection Services was providing funds through the American Rescue Fund to help people who leave the foster care system at age 18.
The Senate plan for ARPA spending includes:
■ $750 million: Matching stimulus spending by cities, counties and rural water associations on water and sewerage infrastructure projects. This includes $350 million for rural water associations and $50 million for smaller cities that are receiving less than $1 million in pandemic recovery funds.
■ $59 million: For the Child Protection Services department to hire 202 people to deal with the state’s beleaguered foster care system and speed up the state’s adoption process.
■ $104.6 million: To help the state’s Department of Mental Health, including $18.5 million for community mental health centers.
■ $26.7 million: For the Mississippi Department of Health’s central operations.
■ $5 million: Workforce training and job retention. This includes money for nursing and health care programs at universities and community colleges and a program to repay nursing student loans.
■ $62.5 million: For tourism statewide. This includes $30 million for local destination marketing organizations across the state and $32.5 million for state parks.
■ $7.5 million: For death benefits for law enforcement and firefighters who died from COVID-19.
■ $211.4 million: For infrastructure work at state agencies including the Department of Corrections, and including $26.5 million for work on various state buildings.
■ $110 million: For water and sewerage projects at universities and community colleges.
■ $3.2 million: For the Mississippi Emergency Management Agency, to reimburse it for COVID-19 expenses not reimbursed by the federal government.
■ $10 million: For private colleges and universities.
■ $10.49 million: For the Mississippi National Guard, with a large part of this going to infrastructure improvements at Camp Shelby.
■ $12 million: To reimburse hospitals for ICU and negative pressure beds dealing with surges in pandemic cases.
■ $250 million: Reimbursement for lost state revenue from the pandemic.
■ $133.6 million: A “holdback” amount, for which spending will be determined later.