In a commencement speech at Notre Dame in 1981, Ronald Reagan spoke about each successive generation having “opportunities beyond anything we’ve ever known.” For the first time in my life, I am concerned that my children may grow up in an America with less opportunity than the America that I have known and loved. Like many Mississippians, I watch daily news shows report on the latest federal government bailout or stimulus package. I ask myself “when is this going to stop” and “how are we going to pay for it.” Recently, the Russian magazine Pravda posed the same questions referencing our nation’s slide towards Marxism. In this article, the editors referred to the American people as “Sheeple.” After reading this comment, I wondered if we are being led to an unprecedented “fleecing” or “to slaughter.”
The stimulus package, formally known as the American Recovery and Reinvestment Act (ARRA), is a reality. Whether you were for it or against it, it doesn’t matter. The reality is that Mississippi now has the responsibility to spend, track and comply with this new federal law. To say that Congress reacted and rushed through a piece of legislation that now requires states to “build the plane as we are flying it” is an understatement. ARRA monies are already being spent in Mississippi. Some Mississippi projects have already been completed, yet regulations and reporting requirements are still being developed by the White House Office of Management and Budget.
Following Hurricane Katrina, the federal government expected Mississippi to have 7 to 10 percent of fraud related to the one-time disaster monies from the federal government. The reality was that Mississippi had less than one percent of fraud spending over $20 million given to the state. This is the kind of stewardship and accountability taxpayers expect and deserve from our leaders in Mississippi. Now Mississippi must implement those same best practices implemented in the devastating aftermath of Hurricane Katrina when working with the ARRA funds.
Looking to the future
Many state and local officials in Mississippi forget to look to the future. It is important that we focus on the bigger picture. As state auditor, my sole purpose is to protect the reputation and the integrity of Mississippi taxpayers. Mississippi cannot wait for those in D.C. to take action, and we should not be a responsive state. Instead, Mississippi should be proactive in our oversight and reporting of these ARRA funds.
The State Auditor’s Office, along with the Mississippi Department of Finance and Administration and Gov. Haley Barbour, have already taken steps to protect the taxpayers of Mississippi. DFA has provided a system to segregate all ARRA funds.
Initial performance audits
My office has conducted initial performance audits of all state agencies receiving ARRA funds to test for strong internal controls, work flow capacity and insure that fraud prevention and detection measures are in place. The challenge now is to collect all of the data necessary for reporting and complying with new federal laws. These steps are important not only to protect the taxpayers but also to protect our reputation as a state. Mississippi was selected to be one of 16 states closely monitored throughout the disbursement of ARRA funds. This doesn’t mean we have any additional laws to follow, but it does mean that the media is watching how well Mississippi handles these billions of dollars coming into the state. As a proud seventh-generation Mississippian, I want to implement the best practices shown following Katrina with the ARRA funds and continue to set an example to the rest of our country on accountability and transparency in government.
Achieving these goals, providing the taxpayers with unprecedented transparency, is only possible if our state and local elected officials in Mississippi worth together. This means putting aside any turf battles between our leaders.
Don’t worry about who gets credit
Our job responsibilities must remain our top priority if we are ever to accomplish this level of accountability. Ronald Reagan often said, “Do not worry about who gets the credit. If we do our job, there will be enough credit for everybody.”
Mississippi’s compliance with ARRA regulations is not a left or right issue. It is not about Republican or Democrat. Playing by the rules and being good stewards of these taxpayers dollars is a matter of right or wrong. We simply want to get it right. That is a task I take very seriously, and I challenge all our leaders in Mississippi to take the challenge of fiscal responsibility and accountability not only with the ARRA funds but with all of our hard-earned tax dollars.
Stacey Pickering, Mississippi’s state auditor, contributed this Op-Ed column for the Mississippi Business Journal. For a public official or newsmaker to contribute an Op-Ed column, contact MBJ managing editor Ross Reily at email@example.com.