When the COVID-19 pandemic hit, state legislatures across the country were faced with declining revenue and increased costs attributable to the virus. For many, this meant a choice between making deep cuts or depleting savings accounts. The federal government quickly responded with the first installment of CARES Act funding, including the undesignated Coronavirus Relief Funds (CRF). Many used this money to shore up their budgets, making themselves even more dependent on the federal government.
In Mississippi, because of prior fiscal restraint and a respect for taxpayer money, we were able to employ these funds to not only respond to the current COVID crisis, but to invest in our future.
In my first two years in the Mississippi Senate, I worked with former Gov. Phil Bryant to improve workforce development. While traveling the state, it became apparent that many of our rural communities, businesses and schools had no Internet connectivity. In other areas, thousands of our citizens had an unreliable connection, with download and upload speeds rendering it unusable.
As chairman of the Energy Committee, when the state’s Electric Cooperatives approached the Legislature about the CRF, I knew it was time for us to seize the opportunity to expand access. In the early 1900s, the Electric Cooperatives equipped Mississippi’s rural areas with much-needed electricity. Now, they were offering to help our communities by installing the fiber necessary to adequately work from home, learn from a distance, receive critical telehealth services and engage in all the other activities required to continue life during the pandemic.
The Electric Cooperatives and other Internet service providers came together to match $75 million from the CRF — a $150 million investment in all. This will help thousands of unserved or underserved Mississippians receive access to reliable, high-speed Internet access, while providing infrastructure for our businesses and boosting our economy.
Ultimately, the Legislature was able to address citizens’ immediate COVID-19 needs and invest in our future with the CRF because we had a sound budget, a solid rainy-day fund and more-than-solvent unemployment compensation fund.
Even through the most challenging months of the pandemic, Mississippi legislators made conservative decisions that will pay dividends for our state and citizens in the long run. It is because of this commitment to fiscal restraint and responsible spending that we are confident going into the New Year. I am proud to be on a team of legislative leaders who understand this significant responsibility and recognize opportunities to move Mississippi forward.
• Joel Carter is a member of the Mississippi State Senate, representing District 49. Follow him on Twitter @JoelCarterMS.