Who can spend? Set aside all partisanship and put stimulus funds to work

Spending federal economic stimulus funds legally – and constitutionally – should not be a problem in Mississippi if the Legislature and the governor come to common understandings about congressional intent before funds are dispersed.
The worst that can happen with the billions of dollars apportioned to Mississippi for dozens of programs and agencies is becoming entrapped in a web of litigation preventing money from getting to intended recipients.
It’s possible in nationwide and Mississippi politics that a new and fierce form of partisanship can cause a gridlock in the stimulus process, but almost everybody in both parties wants most of the money moving into the economy as soon as possible. In our state, the stimulus means both jobs and services.
Medicaid, the statewide health insurance coverage system for the poor, single mothers, the disabled and many children, needs the stimulus to fully fund the program. Only a series of windfalls carried on the wings of tragedy (Hurricane Katrina), and bookkeeping errors (laid at the feet of the Musgrove administration), and now the rancid economy, make funding possible.
The Legislature cannot make itself decide how to fund the shortfalls. Last week, it again failed to levy a “tax” on some hospitals participating in the program.
During the three years of the stimulus drawdown, Medicaid in Mississippi is scheduled to receive $756.5 million. The amount sounds huge, but health care gobbles funds in any program, and Mississippi has 600,000 Medicaid clients, and more are likely with the weak economy and job losses. In a broader view, Medicaid funds also pay the salaries of thousands in the private-sector health care industry – from insurance administrators to direct providers.
Similar spending and jobs and service links apply across the spectrum of stimulus money – from education to new highway construction.
The possibility of protracted disagreement about who ultimately appropriates the funds isn’t confined to Mississippi. Florida appears headed toward battles between Republican Gov. Charlie Crist and even more conservative Republicans in the Legislature.
What our state needs is a fast and accurate application of all the federal stimulus funds as they are made available. Nothing could be more self-defeating than legal wrangles holding up spending the stimulus.
Yes, it matters who has the authority under the constitution and in statute, but politicizing that discussion by party or branch of government is not what our state needs. Unemployment last week hit 9.2 percent statewide, but some regions, including Northeast Mississippi, are higher.
If the stimulus is tied up in intragovernmental arguing, it can’t help.

 

Joe Rutherford