Your Senate returned from recess last Friday to take up concerns regarding federal COVID-19 emergency funding through the CARES Act. Senate Bill 2772 was taken up by the House and was passed by a unanimous vote after an amendment was offered. The bill was then returned to the Senate for concurrence which was approved by a near unanimous vote. Many versions of the bill have been portrayed by the media, but the truth lies outside of press conferences and a media blitz.
The State of Mississippi received just over $2 billion in federal funds through the CARES Act. Over $800 million of these funds have already been directed to various agencies for immediate use related to health, education, elections, agriculture, etc. The governor’s office received $34 million for discretionary emergency spending. The remaining funds were designated to be used by the state under certain guidelines.
Those are for necessary expenditures incurred due to the public health emergency such as reimbursement of PPE, testing, distance learning, sanitary conditions of prisons, telemedicine capabilities, and expenses related to economic support. This money was not designated to a particular agency, so while it has restrictions, it is discretionary and up to states to use it to best address needs in Mississippi.
The legislature’s position is that these funds are designated for appropriation pursuant to the appropriations process. All agencies were asked if there were any immediate funding needs and all were working within their current budget. The legislature’s passage of SB 2772 moved $1.15 billion to a COVID account for appropriation. The legislature also left $100 million in the Department of Finance and Administration account for use by the governor for immediate needs. In all, the Governor has authority to designate the use of $134 million in funds for immediate needs. This is the most transparent process to divide out the funds for the needs of the state.
Unfortunately, there are those who believe that the Governor should have the authority to designate who gets what money without any voice from the people. My number one concern is that the plan from the Governor’s office included third parties who would take a percentage of the money in exchange for overseeing these funds. That percentage equated to estimated amounts exceeding $12.5 million to be deducted from the emergency money. That is not acceptable.
Our government has the most competent auditor and treasurer in recent history who are well equipped to handle the oversite of these federal funds. The $12.5 million can go a long way to help the people of Mississippi and I am not comfortable allowing third party firms to swoop in and take advantage of our people while they are hurting. The legislature returns on May 18 to complete the appropriations process. In the meantime, I hope that all three leaders can come together for the good of Mississippi.
In other news, Auditor Shad White released his formal finding with regards to the Mississippi Department of Human Services. The audit’s formal finding is that over $94 million of that grant money has been “questioned,” meaning auditors either saw clear misspending or could not verify the money had been lawfully spent. From hiring lobbyists with TANF money to allowing an organization to purchase new vehicles, sponsor college sporting events, pay speeding tickets, and even paying money to a private school; the waste is rampant.
The auditor’s office has made recommendations to require property to be seized to try to return taxpayer money back to the people. “This audit should be a wake-up call to everyone in government. The old way of doing things, where you do whatever your boss or a person who controls a lot of money tells you to do, or you ignore the law around how to spend money because you think no one is looking — those days are over,” White said. I commend Auditor Shad White on his team’s work and can say that after this finding, I am even more convinced that my vote on SB 2772 is the right vote.
Lastly, I encourage you to remain vigilant. Scott County now has the third highest number of cases in the state. Dr. Dobbs met with community leaders on Friday to discuss the plans to fight this spike. I look around town and see people going back to normal as if the virus isn’t present. I see beauty shops opening and risking the health and safety of the patrons. I see names of friends who are now fighting this virus and pray for healing. I wonder what it will take for people to take this virus serious.
In the coming days I expect to see specific orders aimed at combatting the spread in Scott and Newton Counties. With more tests come more positive numbers. I urge you to keep the social distancing, stay out of groups of 10 or more, and keep up the hygiene. We are not finished with this fight yet.
Thank you for the opportunity to serve.