Guest column by Public Service Commissioner Brandon Presley
I’m a proud fan of old country music. This modern stuff parading around as “country music” just isn’t for me. Not long ago, I heard Merle Haggard singing about “drinking that free bubble-up and eating that rainbow stew.” Immediately, I thought of an old political friend who used that line when talking about wasteful government programs that promised a lot, but delivered very little. Lord help us if we get too high and happy with the over $2.7 billion currently flowing into local and state coffers from the American Rescue Plan.
The billions coming to city, county and state government have limited purposes under federal law and U.S. Treasury guidelines. Like all programs, there’s some wiggle room on expenditures, but now isn’t the time to get cute and cocky with these dollars. It’s abundantly clear that these funds can only be spent on: investments in broadband, water, sewer, aid to industries and households affected by the pandemic, premium pay to essential employees or grants to their employers or to replenish local or state revenue losses due to COVID-19. These funds have a very limited focus and leaders must be extra responsible with them, realizing that they are one-time funds that may never come around again. We simply cannot bend over backwards to skirt and stretch guidelines for a wish list of questionable pet projects while ignoring the real intent of the funds. Simply put, the majority of this money should go to infrastructure every Mississippian needs like water, sewer, and broadband
If spent with an eye toward problem solving, Mississippi can take a major step forward in fixing our infrastructure needs for decades to come and actually produce results that can be seen and felt. This can be done simultaneously with providing premium pay for frontline workers so that we have their back financially like they have had ours during this pandemic. We should reward them and put our money where our mouth and our social media “thanks” and honking horns were when this pandemic hit. I also know our tourism and hospitality industries suffered under mandated shut-downs and may need help. That leaves hundreds of millions, possibly a billion for infrastructure.
We have over 380,000 Mississippians who still get their household water from a dug well rather than a water utility, according to a report by Mississippi State University. We have water systems that need line and capacity upgrades to clean up water and for reliability purposes. While we’ve made major progress on broadband expansion, there’s still work to be done. We’ve gone from being 49th in 2019 in access to broadband to 42nd, but every home isn’t connected. We should craft a plan that eliminates the need for dug wells and assures broadband to every home at an even faster pace that we are currently deploying it. By utilizing a competitive grant process and engaging the $900 million sent to counties, these dollars can go much further and provide true benefits.
I’m sick of government promising us the moon and, if we are lucky, delivering a cheap flashlight. We cannot allow that to happen with the American Rescue Plan funds on either a state or a local level. We must use these dollars to forever correct real problems of real people without basic community water, access to broadband and sanitary conditions. History will record whether we fixed problems with these funds or fiddled them away. Let’s pass up the temptation of free bubble-up and rainbow stew and stick with the meat and potatoes that will improve the daily lives of our people.
Brandon Presley is the Public Service Commissioner for the Northern District of Mississippi. He can be reached at email@example.com