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Mississippi agencies: Shutdown could spark worker furloughs

Mississippi’s welfare and child protection agencies could have to begin furloughing state employees without pay because federal welfare money has been interrupted by the federal government shutdown.

Department of Human Services Executive Director John Davis told the state House Appropriations Committee on Thursday that he needs to know by Feb. 15 if federal money will resume. If not, according to lawmakers who heard Davis and a spokesman for Gov. Phil Bryant, Davis will plan for furloughs at the agency beginning in March.

Davis told lawmakers that his agency gets $30 million or more each month in federal Temporary Assistance to Needy Families money to pay employees. Rep. David Baria, a Bay St. Louis Democrat, said Davis told lawmakers that he would have to lay off a substantial portion of the agency’s more than 2,000 employees.

Child Protection Services Executive Director Jess Dickinson said his agency, which also spends money from Temporary Assistance to Needy Families, could also have to send workers home without pay at some point. He also warned that he could have to cut payments to families and agencies caring for Mississippi’s nearly 5,000 foster children. Dickinson said Child Protective Services has received $15 million of the $30 million in TANF money that the Department of Human Services is scheduled to pass through to the children’s agency during this budget year.

“I have enough to make it through the rest of the year in some respects, but I don’t have enough to pay my employees and I don’t have enough to pay foster care,” Dickinson told reporters after the hearing. He estimated the agency could have to lay off roughly one in five employees.

The Associated Press could find no human services agencies in other states which have announced such plans. Mississippi Department of Human Services officials didn’t respond Thursday to repeated emails and phone calls from the AP seeking more information.

“All state agencies are fully functional and operational. There has been no disruption of services to beneficiaries or state employees, and Gov. Bryant doesn’t anticipate that happening,” said spokesman Knox Graham.

House Appropriations Committee Chairman John Read, a Gautier Republican, said lawmakers are working on ways to tide over agencies.

“We hope right now, like everyone else, that this thing gets resolved,” Read said. “This is a possibility, but it’s not reality yet.”

Chuck McIntosh, spokesman for the state Department of Finance and Administration, said Gov. Phil Bryant does not at this time have authority to borrow from the state’s $390 million in savings to loan money to agencies. State Rep. John Hines, a Greenville Democrat, said he’s exploring legislation to allow such borrowing.

Read also expressed concern that Mississippi’s nearly 500,000 food stamp beneficiaries, who were issued a cumulative $60 million in February Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program payments on Jan. 20, could run out of food money before the end of February if they don’t budget carefully. Some food stamp recipients routinely report having trouble making their benefits stretch through the whole month. If the shutdown lasts until March, it’s unclear whether payments will be issued. With just $3 billion in reserves, the U.S. Department of Agriculture won’t be able to cover the roughly $4.8 billion it pays in monthly benefits nationwide.

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