Senate bill would ensure pandemic relief funds are spent appropriately

Published: Jan. 25, 2022 at 3:29 PM CST
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JACKSON, Miss. (WLBT) - A bill by Senate Minority Leader Derrick Simmons (D-MS) aims to guarantee the hefty $1.8 billion in pandemic relief funds to Mississipi - is spent appropriately.

SB 2805 is under review in a Senate committee after being introduced last week. The group must take action on the bill by February 1.

Simmons is calling for an Ombudsman position to be created to offer a nonpartisan, objective report on how these dollars get spent.

Monday, the Senate passed its version of how a chunk of the funds should be used, but the House must still weigh in.

Mississippi Advocacy Network for Change (MAN-C), the advocacy group that helped Simmons draft the legislation, comprises 13 social justice organizations demanding transparency and efficiency over these federal dollars.

One group member, Children’s Defense Fund’s Southern Regional Office, worries the funds are being spent too freely and quickly.

“We don’t know what’s in those bills, and the folks who were trying to ask for transparency were voted down, and the legislation passed through, Executive Director Oleta Fitzgerald said. “So, we are concerned that very few people are divvying up $1.8 billion without any oversight and any transparency by the public.”

Children’s Defense Fund ensures headstarts, children, and their families have a healthy start with every opportunity to be successful.

On behalf of MAN-C, Fitzgerald says lawmakers should be clearer about how they’re spending federal dollars.

“We have seen sweetheart deals in the past. We have seen from the whole TANF debacle how money can get missed when you have such an influx of dollars like this, and there’s no public scrutiny of that money,” she added.

The executive director is referring to an audit released last October that found state leaders $69M in ‘unallowable, questionable’ expenses in money earmarked for needy families by state leaders - not lawmakers.

Fitzgerald believes there could be an overlap of funds with other resources coming into the state.

“Based on what I’ve read from what passed the Senate yesterday, there is money that’s going to be coming into the state for federal infrastructure and some of the things they’re paying for out of this COVID money could have come from that money,” she said.

Here are the members of MAN-C:

ACLU, Mississippi Human Services Coalition, Mississippi’s chapter of National Association of Social Workers, Mississippi Center for Justice, One Voice, Black Women’s Roundtable, Mississippi’s Low Income Childcare Initiative, Springboard to Opportunities, Mississippi State Conference, Southern Poverty Law Center, and the Children’s Defense Fund’s Southern Regional Office.

The organizations fight for social justice and even if the bill doesn’t pass, they’ll keep pushing for accountability.

“We’re concerned about those folks who are on the frontline every day in this pandemic, those that are very close to this disease like CNAs, maintenance workers, social workers, and so many others. It’s incumbent upon us to ensure that these funds are spent correctly.”

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