State agencies and other groups pitched lawmakers for hundreds of millions in federal pandemic stimulus funds in hearings at the Capitol on Monday and Tuesday.
The agencies want to fix or replace dilapidated buildings, water and sewer pipes, and computer systems. They asked for money to expand nursing programs, hire more law officers, improve the state’s tourism marketing and workforce training, buy a helicopter and do many other projects that would otherwise be out of reach in the regular state budget.
The Legislature has $1.8 billion in American Rescue Plan Act money it can allocate from now through December 2024, with relatively broad leeway under federal regulations.
Mississippi is behind most other states in planning for and spending its ARPA funds. But a special Senate Appropriations subcommittee appointed by Lt. Gov. Delbert Hosemann is holding hearings through the end of the year and will make recommendations to the Legislature when it convenes in January.
The agencies this week made more than $1.6 billion in requests. But some of the requests were duplicative, would not likely qualify under the federal rules, and some agencies are receiving other federal pandemic funds directly. Sen. John Polk, chair of the special committee, said those are issues that will have to be sorted out.
Mississippi’s city and county governments are also receiving a combined $900 million in ARPA funds. Hosemann, who has called for the money to be spent in “transformational” ways that will have an impact for generations, has proposed the Legislature use up to half its funds to match city and county spending, to provide for larger projects.
Some requests made during the two days of hearings include:
Institutions of Higher Learning
State universities are asking for money for money to improve broadband internet services, especially for rural campuses, to fix aging water, sewerage, ventilation and other infrastructure and to expand health programs to help with the state’s shortage of nurses and other health practitioners.
Commissioner of Higher Education Alfred Rankins Jr. told lawmakers that needed projects include “potable water contingencies” at Jackson State University and Alcorn State, heating and air projects at the University of Mississippi and Mississippi State and a project to alleviate flooding at the University of Southern Mississippi.
“For many of our campuses, the water and sewer systems are more than 40 years old,” Rankins said.
The state’s 15 community colleges need upgrades for water and sewerage and broadband connectivity, said Kell Smith, interim director of the Community College Board. The schools also want to use the money to focus on supply-chain issues with workforce training and to expand allied health programs — to produce more nurses and other health workers currently in short supply statewide.
“(Regular) Appropriations and bonds have not been enough to cover these needs in the past,” said Smith, who said his request includes $54.5 million for infrastructure, $15 million for supply chain workforce training and $15 million for health programs.
Private universities and colleges
The state’s seven private colleges would qualify for the state’s federal pandemic funds, said Jason Dean, director of the Mississippi Association of Independent Colleges and Universities.
Dean said many campus buildings at the schools are around 100 years old and need work, and like public universities, they could expand their nursing and other healthcare programs to help the state’s shortage.
State Supreme Court Chief Justice Michael K. Randolph told lawmakers that the state’s court system is constitutionally required to keep operating even during the worst of a pandemic, and federal dollars could help the system address backlogs and improve technology.
He noted that with previous federal pandemic funds, the court system sent back hundreds of thousands of dollars it didn’t need, proving the system is frugal and trustworthy.
“I look at it like it’s my own checkbook,” Randolph said.
Accelerate Mississippi workforce training
Ryan Miller, director of the state’s new workforce development clearinghouse agency, said there are “4,000 jobs unfilled in nursing alone” in Mississippi, and federal funds can help produce needed trained workers in healthcare, emerging technology sectors, logistics and supply chain and other areas.
Mississippi Department of Employment Security
The agency’s main request is $90.9 million to replenish the state’s unemployment trust fund to its pre-pandemic levels, said interim Director Robin Stewart.
In January of 2020, the fund had $707 million. It got hit with $488 million in unemployment claims during the worst of the pandemic shutdown. The state replenished the fund with about $397 million from an earlier round of federal pandemic relief, but it is only at $595, still below pre-pandemic level. Keeping the fund flush staves off automatic tax increases for state businesses.
The agency also requested $1 million for four new customized buses to serve as mobile WIN Job Centers, to replace its current bus, which is old, large, hard to maneuver and breaks down often, Stewart said.
Mississippi Emergency Management Agency
MEMA Director Stephen McCraney told lawmakers his agency had to scramble with COVID-19 response, including standing up a warehouse and distribution for personal protective equipment — and noted, “there’s another variant coming.”
McCraney said the agency needs the federal dollars to pay salaries for staff and reservists, cover utilities and maintenance for its emergency supply warehouse, cover COVID-19 contracts and PPE expenses.
“Without ARPA funds, we’re going to be forced to dip into the state coffers,” McCraney said.
State buildings and infrastructure/government health insurance plan
The state Department of Finance and Administration asked lawmakers for $500 million for capital projects — work on state-owned buildings and infrastructure — and $53 million, for now, to prop up the state employee insurance plan.
Some of DFA’s request for projects appeared to duplicate requests from colleges and universities and other agencies. Part of the request is for the state employee health insurance program, which was hit with more than $50 million in pandemic costs and has had to dip into cash reserves over years to prevent huge premium increases for workers.
Mississippi Development Authority
The state’s economic development agency is asking for $52 million for tourism, to provide grants to local tourism agencies and for $50 million for “Quality of Place” and downtown revitalization grants for local communities.
MDA Interim Director Laura Hipp said the agency is also receiving about $4 million in ARPA funds more directly from the federal Economic Development Administration that will be used for upgrades at state welcome centers and parks and trail markers and for working with universities on technology-based economic development.
Mississippi Department of Human Services
MDHS badly needs to replace its old computer system that was built in the 1980s and ’90s, said Director Bob Anderson. The pieces of the system cannot even communicate with each other.
“For instance, when a single mom comes in and we can’t sit down with her at a single station on a single system and determine all the programs she might be eligible for,” Anderson said. This often requires families to spend hours or make multiple trips trying to get certified for programs.
But Anderson said the price tag for a new system is $150 million, and there’s no way it could be bidded, built and installed by the 2026 deadline for ARPA projects. Instead of asking the state for ARPA funds for the project, Anderson is asking the state use ARPA funds for other agencies and hopefully “free up” general fund dollars MDHS could use for the system. He said MDHS will ask the Legislature for $54 million for the system, and hopes to receive other federal dollars for the balance.
MDHS is also receiving hundreds of millions of dollars in federal pandemic dollars directly for programs such as workforce childcare.
Department of Public Safety
DPS wants to provide premium pay of $1,000 each to public safety workers who soldier on through the pandemic and to provide death benefits for families of first responders who die from COVID-19.
Public Safety Commissioner Sean Tindell said that as of Oct. 1, 30 first responders statewide had died from COVID-19 and that total is expected to reach about 50 by the end of the year.
Tindell said he also wants to use ARPA funds to bring the number of state troopers and other sworn officers up to levels they were years ago. He said Highway Patrol now has about 500 troopers, but had about 600 in 2007.
“I don’t think Mississippi is a safer place than it was 15 years ago,” Tindell said.
DPS also wants to use the funds to purchase a building in Canton to centralize drivers services, renovate or purchase other buildings, increase cyber security and buy a second MHP helicopter (which costs $7.9 million). DPS also wants funding to improve the Medical Examiners Office and provide incentive pay to recruit forensic pathologists to help with a backlog of autopsies — some dating back to 2011.
Mississippi Department of Corrections
Mississippi Corrections Commissioner Burl Cain said his agency needs to make water, sewerage and stormwater improvements to the prison system statewide.
“The Justice Department is knocking on the door and I’ve been through that before, and they’re going to get us on wastewater,” Cain said. “The numbers are humongous, but we need to fix it before the Justice Department makes us fix it.”
The agency’s request includes $44.6 million in improvements at the troubled State Penitentiary at Parchman, built in 1901, and $20 million in work at the Central Mississippi Correctional Facility.
Mississippi Veterans Affairs
Director Stacey Pickering said the agency’s top priority is to relocate the Veterans Home at Jackson, which is antiquated, dilapidated and located in a high crime area. Pickering said the agency, like many others, is also facing a critical shortage of nurses.
Relocating the nursing home would cost more than $56 million, but Pickering said the federal VA would provide 65%, so he is requesting $19.7 million from the state’s ARPA funds.
But Chairman Polk told Pickering that the ARPA rules say the money cannot be used as a match to other federal dollars. Pickering said his office had put in a request with the U.S. Treasury to see if the money could be used as a match for a new VA home.
-- Article credit to Geoff Pender of Mississippi Today --