Mississippi lawmakers should be very busy for the next three months. The 2022 legislative session, which begins Tuesday, is about as jam-packed with significant — or significantly distracting — matters as any in recent memory.
Among the items lawmakers are expected to tackle are legalizing medical marijuana; restoring the power for voters to initiate constitutional amendments; redrawing voting lines for Mississippi’s four members of Congress and 174 members of the Legislature; and giving teachers another salary increase.
Expect there also to be debate — although less certain of action — on cutting or swapping taxes; banning public schools from teaching critical race theory (which they already don’t); and expanding Medicaid.
But arguably the most important task facing lawmakers this session is deciding how to spend the $1.8 billion the state is getting from the federal government in coronavirus relief funding.
There are going to be a lot of interests wanting a slice of that American Rescue Plan money — most certainly cities and counties, hospitals and other health care providers, broadband providers, law enforcement agencies, and state agencies that provide health and social services to people impacted by the pandemic. Most of these will have significant merit to their arguments.
Hospitals, for example, are severely pinched by a shortage of nurses and other skilled workers. They are looking for immediate help to try to lure these workers back through incentives that could be financed, at least in part, by state appropriations.
What lawmakers have to decide is whether to use this federal windfall for short-term problems or long-term ones. It’s doubtful there’s enough to effectively tackle both, as big a number as $1.8 billion sounds. In fact, over a series of meetings held during the latter part of 2021, requests for the funding totaled about $7 billion, or almost four times what’s available.
That’s why Lt. Gov. Delbert Hosemann had it right when he said, months ago, that Mississippi needs to devote most of its coronavirus relief money to making improvements that will benefit this state not just in the moment but for several generations. That means putting the funds into long-term capital projects that have gone neglected for lack of resources, most notably water and sewer improvements.
Hosemann’s idea is to couple the state money with the more than $900 million that is going directly to county and city governments from the American Rescue Plan.
Add another $2.3 billion that Mississippi is expected to receive from the massive infrastructure package Congress passed this year, and this state has the rare opportunity to significantly upgrade the roads and bridges we travel, and to repair or replace the piping used to bring water to our homes and to take waste away from them.
But that’s only doable if we resist the temptation to worry just about the here and now. That is the mistake this state has made in the past, letting roads and bridges deteriorate because it didn’t have the foresight to realize that what the state built wouldn’t last if it didn’t make the investment to keep up the infrastructure.
Mississippi can better this state for the long term from the coronavirus relief money. The Legislature should spend it accordingly.
Tim Kalich is editor and publisher of The Greenwood Commonwealth.