Some say the millions from Uncle Sam prevented dramatic cuts in state services, while others contend the piles of cash simply postponed the necessary process of making government leaner and more efficient.
Senate Appropriations Committee Chairman Alan Nunnelee acknowledges that without the federal largesse, lawmakers would've had even more trouble setting a budget for the fiscal year that began July 1 because state tax collections have been sluggish the past several months.
But Nunnelee — a Tupelo Republican with congressional aspirations — usually refers to the American Recovery and Reinvestment Act by its acronym, ARRA, which he pronounces "EH-rah," sounding an awful lot like "error."
Republican Gov. Haley Barbour, no great fan of Democratic President Barack Obama, says the stimulus package is allowing Mississippi, one of the poorest states in the nation, to spend a record amount of money on some parts of government.
"It is not a sustainable budget by any stretch of the imagination, particularly for education," Barbour told reporters at the state Capitol.
The National Governors Association says that since the economy started to sputter last fall, most states' revenues have dropped significantly.
The infusion of federal cash has allowed Mississippi to avoid layoffs or furloughs of state workers. And while many agencies lost up to 5 percent from their budgets during the year that ended June 30, there were no dramatic events such as grandmothers being tossed out of nursing homes or inmates being put out on the streets to save space in prisons.
Mississippi's revenues fell about $390 million short of expectations for the fiscal year that ended June 30. The state's unemployment rate hit 9.8 percent in June, about 2 percent higher than the same month in 2008. State officials expect a slow recovery from the recession.
Barbour said that with the help of federal stimulus, Mississippi's elementary and secondary schools are receiving 7.3 percent more this fiscal year "than they have ever received in history." Community colleges are receiving 1 percent more than ever, and universities are receiving 2.5 percent more than their previous record.
"It's all coming from this one-time federal money. I think better put ... two-time federal money. We'll get it this year, we'll get it next year," the second-term governor said.
Barbour has long criticized his Democratic predecessor, Ronnie Musgrove, for budgets that were packed with "one-time" money — funding sources that weren't steady from one year to the next.
Barbour said Mississippi's new $6 billion budget includes "500-something million dollars" from the stimulus package, with much of it directed to education and Medicaid, the government health insurance program for the needy. The federal and state governments both chip in to pay for Medicaid. From October 2008 through December 2010, the federal government is paying a larger percentage of the tab, to cover an anticipated increase in enrollment as unemployment rises.
While critics often deride government spending as pork, some Mississippi lawmakers acknowledge this: The federal cash pulled state budget writers' bacon out the fire this year.
As tough as it was for legislators to write a budget — and they didn't finish until after the fiscal year began — the more vexing decisions could be a year or two away if the economy continues to falter as the federal stimulus money disappears.