Last week, Gov. Tate Reeves threatened to veto a bill that stripped him of sole spending authority over $1.25 billion in federal coronavirus aid. This week, lawmakers are expected to incorporate a small business assistance program into the same bill and send it to Reeves for his signature.
The bill, which Reeves had opposed, ensures $1.25 billion in federal relief funds to address the coronavirus pandemic is appropriated by the Legislature rather than solely by the governor. But this week, the bill will likely be expanded to take a portion of the federal funds – around $100 million – to create a program to help small businesses that have been closed or negatively impacted by COVID-19.
Last week Reeves threatened to veto the bill, which blocked him from having sole spending authority of the federal funds, but gave up that effort after it became likely legislators would override his veto. Lt. Gov. Delbert Hosemann and Speaker Philip Gunn both later pledged to work with Reeves in appropriating the federal funds, but stressed the money could not be spent until appropriated by the Legislature.
Lawmakers could vote on the proposal as early as Thursday as they work this week to deal with issues related to COVID-19. Besides addressing small businesses, Hosemann said other legislative priorities in spending the federal funds are:
• Helping with the costs incurred by cities and counties in dealing with the coronavirus.
• Aiding hospitals that have been hit with the double whammy of coronavirus costs and lost revenue because other medical procedures have been put on hold during the pandemic.
• Improving distance learning for the schools by looking at ways to expand broadband services in rural areas of the state.
State agencies have received an additional about $800 million in federal funds outside of the $1.25 billion to deal with the coronavirus. Those funds have gone to various agencies, ranging from the Emergency Management Agency, Department of Health and education entities and will not be appropriated by the Legislature.
The Legislature will not want to reimburse the Mississippi Emergency Management Agency for the costs of personal protection equipment, such as masks and gowns, if the agency has directly received federal funds to pay for those costs.
Still, Gunn said that the $1.25 billion could be spent quickly if legislators are not careful. He warned that “$1.25 billion seems like a lot of money, but if you have 11 hands in the pot, it goes quickly.”
The money cannot be used to offset lost tax collections that are occurring on both the local and state level because of the economic slowdown that has resulted from the pandemic.
Representatives of both the Mississippi Municipal League and the Mississippi Association of Supervisors told legislators they are working to determine the amount of money they have spent on COVID-19 expenses. Costs vary from overtime pay for law enforcement to funds for disinfectants and personal protection equipment. They also have spent money on technology to ensure that public hearings could be on the internet during the time of social distancing.
“We will try to come up with a figure, but it is going to be difficult,” said Shari Veazey, executive director of the Municipal League. “We know what we spent in March and April,” but determining what will happen going forward could be difficult.
Forrest County Supervisor Chris Bowen, president of the Mississippi Association of Supervisors, said there is a possibility that the coronavirus could re-intensify as the economy is reopened, resulting in local governments having to expend more funds. He said it is difficult to plan for such a possibility.
In the House, Mississippi Department of Corrections Interim Commissioner Tommy Taylor outlined his agency’s current and projected coronavirus expenses through June 2021 for things like hand sanitizer, gloves, masks, hazard pay and reimbursement to county jails. The department has incurred expenses of $2.1 million to date and expects to spend $12.2 million over the next year, according to documents provided to lawmakers in the meeting. As of Tuesday, the state had 10 inmates test positive for the coronavirus and one death, Taylor said.
If an inmate does test positive, Taylor said the person is removed from the general population and quarantined, and the inmates housed in the same population as the person who tested positive are also quarantined.
Legislators most likely will return to the business of the regular 2020 session on May 18.