Legislators, trying to move quickly after a contentious showdown with Gov. Tate Reeves that affirmed their authority to appropriate $1.25 billion in stimulus funds, hope to have a bill passed next week to provide financial help to Mississippi’s small businesses.

House Speaker Philip Gunn, R-Clinton, said there is a possibility that legislators could vote Tuesday on a small business financial relief package when they return to the Capitol.
The House and Senate members met Friday to discuss where the stimulus money – intended in part to help pay for coronavirus-related expenses – should be spent.

“The two areas we hear the most about are unemployment (benefits) and small business help,” Gunn said.

Federal money already is available for the Mississippians who have lost their jobs because of the COVID-19 pandemic, but people are having a difficult time getting through to an overwhelmed Employment Security Agency to file their claims to receive benefits. Legislators are grappling with ways to speed up the process.

For about a week Reeves has been talking about using a portion of the federal money to provide grants to small businesses that in many cases have been closed because of safety precautions. He has particularly spoken of the need to help barbershops and hair salons.

This week legislators and Reeves engaged in a contentious argument over who had appropriating authority of the funds, setting up for what could have been a dramatic showdown. That showdown was averted when Reeves agreed to work through the legislative appropriations process to spend the money. He maintained that he could have more quickly and efficiently spent the funds, but said an ongoing fight would have taken the focus away from helping Mississippians.

But it became apparent Friday that Reeves – or agencies he controls – still will have significant say in how the funds are disbursed. During a meeting of the Senate Appropriations Committee, a tentative plan was put forth where initially $100 million would be put into a fund to provide grants of up to $25,000 to small businesses to pay the costs of salaries, rent and utilities if they were closed or impacted by the pandemic.
The Mississippi Development Authority, an agency controlled by the governor, would administer the funds and establish regulations for who would receive the funds under broad parameters established by the Legislature.

“Time is of the essence,” said Senate Finance Chair Josh Harkins, R-Flowood. “We are trying to make these funds available as soon as possible.”

He said there are businesses that need help to remain viable.

The funds would be available for companies with 50 or fewer employees. Sen. Angela Turner-Ford, D-West Point, pointed out that some companies might have fewer than 50 employees, but still be large in terms of their net worth and income. She and others said a focus should be on helping truly small companies, particularly sole proprietor companies that did not qualify for help under another federal program – the Payroll Protection Program (PPP).

The PPP program provided help to companies for payroll and other expenses during the pandemic.

Harkins said under the state program companies that did not receive other federal help would receive the first grants. After that, companies that received money through the PPP could apply for the state grants.

Sen. Chad McMahan, R-Guntown, also questioned leaving the authority to administer the program with the Mississippi Development Authority, especially since the agency does not have locations throughout the state and thus is not easily accessible for companies away from Jackson.

In the House, the speaker created various committees to deal with coronavirus-related issues. Some of those issues included help for local governments with coronavirus costs, distance learning issues and ways to make it safer to vote in November if the coronavirus is ongoing. Both the House and Senate held meetings to discuss those various issues with the intent of beginning to take up actual legislation next week.

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Bobby Harrison, Mississippi Today’s senior capitol reporter, covers politics, government and the Mississippi State Legislature. He also writes a weekly news analysis which is co-published in newspapers statewide. A native of Laurel, Bobby joined our team June 2018 after working for the North Mississippi Daily Journal in Tupelo since 1984. He is president of the Mississippi Capitol Press Corps Association and works with the Mississippi State University Stennis Institute to organize press luncheons. Bobby has a bachelor's in American Studies from the University of Southern Mississippi and has received multiple awards from the Mississippi Press Association, including the Bill Minor Best Investigative/In-depth Reporting and Best Commentary Column.

Kayleigh Skinner joined the Mississippi Today team in January 2017 as an education and legislative reporter and advanced to a senior staff member in her four years with the company. Before joining Mississippi Today, Kayleigh worked at The Hechinger Report, Chalkbeat Tennessee, and The Commercial Appeal. She has appeared on MSNBC, NPR, and BBC Newsday Radio to discuss her reporting.