Lawmakers, not Gov. Tate Reeves, will control $1.2 billion in federal coronavirus relief

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Eric J. Shelton/Mississippi Today

House Speaker Philip Gunn, left, Gov. Tate Reeves and Lt. Gov. Delbert Hosemann address the media at a press conference on Thursday.

After days of bickering over who should control the spending of $1.2 billion in federal coronavirus relief, legislative leaders joined Gov. Tate Reeves at his Thursday press briefing to announce they would control the spending and listen to the governor’s advice.

Reeves for weeks insisted he had sole spending authority over the federal stimulus funds. But Lt. Gov. Delbert Hosemann and House Speaker Philip Gunn abruptly called lawmakers back to Jackson last week to pass a bill that shored up their spending authority over the funds. Reeves then threatened to veto the bill, and Capitol politicos scrambled to whip votes for a possible veto override.

But just hours before Reeves’ deadline to sign or veto the bill, the leaders announced on Thursday they would try to work together on the federal spending authority after discussing it Wednesday evening at the Governor’s Mansion.

“I want to thank the governor for working with us to reach an agreement in this matter because as you know we’ve had some disagreements,” Gunn said. “The conclusion that we’ve reached is the Legislature will appropriate those dollars while working in conjunction with the governor administering those dollars.”

Gunn and Hosemann said the funds would work through the normal legislative appropriations process.

Reeves, who insisted on Thursday that he “didn’t care who gets to spend the money,” said he believes the most important thing was to get the federal funds to Mississippians who need it. But Reeves suggested that his involvement in the leaders’ understanding could change.

“I have made a determination that the best way, at this time, to get money to the people that need it is to reach out to the lieutenant governor and speaker and find a solution,” Reeves said. “Let me be clear: That is the best path forward for Mississippi today. If that changes, so be it.” 

Reeves continued: “I am committed to working with legislative leadership as long as we can reach resolutions that are best for Mississippians. I believe (Hosemann and Gunn) are well-intentioned and want to do right. Now it’s time to execute.”

In Reeves’ daily news conferences the past four days, the governor said legislators taking action to try to take control of the funds could put people’s lives in jeopardy and accused legislators of engaging in “petty politics.”

But after a scathing letter from the speaker criticizing the governor’s comments, Reeves toned down his rhetoric in more recent news conferences. As the process unfolded, it appeared more likely that the governor’s veto would be overridden — something that has not happened to a Mississippi governor since 2002. And it would be the first time in the modern era that a Republican governor’s veto was overridden by a Republican majority Legislature.

Hosemann said on Thursday that the Senate will hold the bill lawmakers passed last week so that the three leaders can nail down details about how they will work to spend the federal funds. This delays any potential veto decision from Reeves and a veto override vote in the Legislature.

One area where negotiations will continue is whether to contract with a “third party administrator” to help disburse the funds in accordance with strict federal guidelines. Reeves maintains such an administrator is needed to ensure the state is not later required to pay back any of the funds.

The federal funding in question is part of the $2 trillion Coronavirus, Aid, Relief and Economic Security (CARES) Act that Congress passed in late March. The bill provides funding in a litany of areas as a response to the COVID-19 pandemic, including help for individuals, businesses, educational entities, state public health agencies and various other aspects of state and local governments.

Lawmakers are in session only for the rest of this week to discuss legislation that would help unemployed Mississippians receive financial assistance. They plan to return indefinitely on May 18 to begin passing the state’s regular general fund budget and debate other typical state matters.