Mississippi working on plans for pandemic relief money

Published 7:55 am Tuesday, January 25, 2022

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JACKSON, Miss. (AP) — Mississippi senators are taking the first steps toward spending some of the $1.8 billion the state is receiving from the federal government for pandemic relief.

Senators passed bills Monday to put $104.6 million into the state Department of Mental Health, $59.1 million into the Department of Child Protection Services, $10.4 million into the Mississippi National Guard and $3.2 million into the Mississippi Emergency Management Agency.

The bills will move to the House for more work. Other bills are expected to come up for debate during the next several weeks.

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A Senate committee held hearings in the fall to consider wish lists from a long list of state agencies. Republican Sen. John Polk of Hattiesburg said they requested $8.3 billion — more than four times the amount available.

Senate Appropriations Committee Chairman Briggs Hopson, a Republican from Vicksburg, said Monday that legislative leaders want “generational, transformational” projects from money the state is receiving.

President Joe Biden signed the American Rescue Plan in March, when Mississippi legislators were still holding their 2021 session. The Treasury Department released guidelines for how states may spend the money in May, more than a month after the Mississippi session ended.

States have until the end of 2024 to decide how to spend the money and the end of 2026 to spend it.

“That is a tight, tight deadline by the federal government,” Polk said Monday.

The biggest chunk of money recommended by the Mississippi Senate is $750 million for water and sewer projects. That proposal has not yet come up for a vote.

Mississippi has faced long-running lawsuits over foster care and mental health services.

Polk said the money for Child Protection Services “will get us very, very close” to paying for court-mandated improvements for foster care by allowing the agency to hire more employees.

The mental health money includes nearly $18.6 million for community mental health centers. Polk said it also includes money to establish a federally mandated 988 hotline for mental health crisis calls.