Lawmakers to hold first welfare scandal hearing

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Lawmakers to hold first hearing on welfare scandal after years of legislative inaction

For the first time since Mississippi’s multimillion welfare scandal broke in February 2020, lawmakers will hold a hearing about the misspending or of at least $77 million in federal funds intended to alleviate poverty in the poorest state in the nation.

Mississippi has earned broad national scrutiny in recent weeks for new revelations in what’s been called “the biggest public embezzlement case in state history” — wealthy, politically connected individuals misspent or personally benefited from millions in federal welfare funds that were supposed to help needy Mississippians.

The Tuesday morning hearing, the first major public hearing following years of calls for such a probe, will be a thoroughly partisan affair. While several notable Republican elected officials and their appointees, friends and campaign donors have been named in the scandal, the hearing will be hosted by the Mississippi Democratic Caucus with sponsorships from several progressive advocacy organizations.

“Mississippi Legislative Democrats will host the first in a series of public hearings on major reforms needed to fix the TANF program and address the millions of dollars in federal penalties the state faces due to years of rampant misspending of TANF funds,” an announcement for the hearing reads. “Impacted families and state and national experts will discuss how to repair Mississippi’s broken public assistance program and head off up to $100 million in federal penalties.”

Democrats enjoy little legislative influence at the state Capitol — as Republicans hold a three-fifths supermajority in both the House and the Senate — and the hearing’s testimony will not likely lead to substantive policy change. Several Democrats over the years have decried the welfare misspending and even filed dozens of bills to curb it in the future. But those talks and legislative efforts have been ignored and killed by Republicans.

Republican lawmakers, meanwhile, have not hosted a single hearing nor publicly investigated the misspending of funds by the state’s welfare department and its nonprofit partners. They have also not drafted or passed a single bill to address the welfare scandal’s stark revelations or increase state oversight over block grant programs.

It is unclear whether a single Republican lawmaker or elected official will attend the Tuesday hearing.

Any lawmaker can reserve a room at the Capitol and host public meetings. Official legislative committees may even subpoena experts or witnesses to testify, but such hearings are a rarity in Mississippi. The Tuesday hearing is not hosted by an official legislative committee, and all of the scheduled speakers will participate voluntarily.

Government officials used the money to lavish their family and friends, invest in a pharmaceutical start-up and make outrageous purchases, such as a new volleyball stadium, a horse ranch for a famous athlete, high-dollar rental agreements on properties that sat empty, lobbying contracts, luxury vehicles, religious concerts, expensive getaways and even a speeding ticket, according to a state auditor’s report.

READ MORE: Mississippi Today’s complete “The Backchannel” investigation

For years, advocates and political observers have posed several critical questions that have gone unanswered by lawmakers. Some of those questions include:

  • How, exactly, were welfare officials and nonprofit leaders able to get away with this misspending for several years?
  • Should Mississippi lawmakers strengthen oversight of the welfare agency to ensure misspending won’t continue? Should the welfare agency be removed completely from the purview of the governor?
  • Should federal TANF regulations be tightened to stop the possibility of state misspending?
  • Do we even know the full extent of the misspending? If not, why? Should lawmakers mandate better accounting practices at the welfare agency?
  • How badly were poor Mississippians left behind while all this misspending occurred, and how can they be better served by state leaders in the future?

The Tuesday hearing will be held at Mississippi State Capitol Room 216 at 10 a.m.

READ MORE: Officials stole taxpayer money from the poor. Mississippians deserve answers and accountability.

This article first appeared on Mississippi Today and is republished here under a Creative Commons license.