The $1.25 billion Mississippi has received in coronavirus relief is a chunk of money. To put it in perspective, that’s about one-fifth of the state’s annual general fund budget.
But, as with all pots of money that state government has, there will be more requests and needs than there will be money to cover. That means the Legislature, which has asserted its control over how most of the money is spent, will have to make some choices.
It already has made a $300 million choice. That’s how much lawmakers have set aside for grants to small businesses, with priority given to those that have not received forgivable loans from the federal government for keeping their employees on the payroll. Earlier, during a dust-up with Gov. Tate Reeves, the Legislature gave him discretion over $100 million for emergency spending related to battling the spread of COVID-19.
That leaves $850 million still to allocate — and there will be no shortage of suitors. The Mississippi Department of Education has said it would like $250 million to equip all of the state’s public school students with computers and broadband access on the possibility that the schools will still be closed in the fall and forced to continue distance learning.
Mississippi hospitals are asking for more than $300 million to offset some of the losses they are suffering from treating COVID-19 patients. Municipal governments, which are anticipating a huge drop in revenues due to a decline in sales tax receipts, want help. So do county governments.
Lawmakers can take two approaches with this money. It can try to spread it as far as it can, giving as many corners of the public and private sectors a piece so as to try to ameliorate the most people possible. That seems to be the federal government’s approach in the $3 trillion it has spent so far on relief.
Or it can target the funding to a few select areas — such as health care and manufacturing — that could produce the biggest bang for the buck.
For Mississippi, which, unlike the federal government, does not have the power to print money, we would recommend the more targeted approach.
Most areas of the economy have been hit hard by the shutdowns of the past two months. Even though Mississippi is gradually lifting many of those restrictions, it looks like it will be a slow recovery. The quicker that some of the state’s largest job providers are back on their feet, the quicker the recovery can come and ripple through to everyone else.
A targeted approach means having to set priorities. That’s not easy politically, but that’s what lawmakers signed up for when they ran for office — that is, to help manage the state’s finances through the good times and the bad.
In all times, but particularly in bad times, that means saying “no” to requests that may be worthy but just not worthy enough.