Funding spurs war of words

April 23, 2009



JACKSON -- State Democratic Party Chairman Jamie Franks has berated Republican Lt. Gov. Phil Bryant for calling the federal stimulus initiative wasteful spending. 


"The stimulus package is providing the state of Mississippi with millions of dollars for projects that will create jobs and improve the infrastructure of our cities and our counties," Franks said in a statement he issued last week. 


"If creating jobs and rebuilding our roads is a waste of money to Phil Bryant, then perhaps we need to protest his leadership in the Senate." 


In criticizing the Senate president, Franks reopened the war of words he and Bryant waged in 2007, when they ran against each other for lieutenant governor. Bryant won with 58 percent of the vote. 


Bryant -- like most Republicans -- has said President Obama and the Democratic-controlled U.S. Congress put too much money into the $787 billion federal stimulus plan. However, with about $2.8 billion of that earmarked for Mississippi, Bryant is helping oversee efforts to spend it. 


"Of course, it will be a help on the state level," he said. "There are some concerns about how we go about using the money, what strings are attached, and then, of course, what debt burden it''s going to put on the federal government." 


"So while we might be using it here to benefit local governments and even our general fund, there is a price to pay in years ahead as we look at deficits." 


The American Recovery and Reinvestment Act was enacted in February with the main objective of retaining and creating jobs by distributing massive amounts of federal funds for government to circulate into the recession-clobbered economy. 


It''s helping governments endure revenue shortfalls and also providing supplemental funds for infrastructure, education, health care, law enforcement, energy efficiency and other programs. It has extra financial assistance for unemployed workers and disabled people. 


ARRA also includes additional money to improve child-care services, ensure cleaner water and expand the high-speed use of the Internet. There''s even money for the arts. 


The largest bulk of Mississippi''s ARRA funds includes the $800 million for education and $700 million for Medicaid program for low-income people, according to the state agencies administering these funds. 


The Medicaid funds will help Mississippi pay for the health care of the influx of people losing their jobs who can''t pay medical services. 


Among the most immediate impact of the economic recovery funds could be felt in local school districts. ARRA money will enable the state to restore most of the Mississippi Adequate Education Program funds cut by Gov. Haley Barbour earlier this year because of revenue shortages. However, the state has not yet received this money. 


Mississippi is expected to get about $392 million in "fiscal stabilization" funds for education plus another $132 million for school programs focused on impoverished children, $39 million for school-building improvements and $122 million for educating disabled students, according to the state Department of Education. 


ARRA also has for Mississippi another $87 million to support education through other government services, such as public safety. 


However, Barbour has warned that the $2.8 billion coming to Mississippi next year won''t fully cure the state''s economic woes. 


"In the spirit of honest budgeting, it is important for legislators and the people of Mississippi to know that the (funds) we expect to receive from the federal stimulus through fiscal year 2011 will not cover the shortfalls in the state budget," he said. 


State legislators agree. 


"The stimulus money itself is not going to pull us out of the hole," said House Education Chairman Cecil Brown, D-Jackson. 


The Mississippi Legislature -- now in recess -- delayed adoption of the state''s $19 billion budget until legislative leaders know more about how the $2.8 billion in Mississippi''s ARRA share impacts state spending. Lawmakers are expected to return in May to pass the budget for the fiscal year that starts in July.