Q&A: What are lawmakers doing to address coronavirus recovery?

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Eric J. Shelton/Mississippi Today

Economic development committee members listen as Jackie Turner, executive director of the Mississippi Department of Employment Security, speaks during an economic development committee meeting at the Capitol in Jackson, Miss., May 7, 2020.

Lawmakers are in Jackson working out how to appropriate coronavirus stimulus funds, but there are many questions about how those funds can be used and whether any concrete plans are currently in place to help Mississippians and their businesses.

Mississippi Today broke down a few commonly asked questions:

What is the CARES Act?

In March, Congress passed the Coronavirus, Aid, Relief and Economic Security (CARES) Act. It contains $2 trillion to be distributed for relief efforts, and Mississippi as a state received $1.25 billion. The state received a separate $800 million in funds for various state agencies that are responding to the coronavirus, such as the Emergency Management Agency, Department of Health and education entities. The Mississippi Legislature will not try to re-appropriate those funds. The $1.25 billion the Legislature is appropriating is a separate pot of money sent to the state with wide latitude in how it can be spent to combat the coronavirus. But the money cannot be used to offset revenue shortfalls caused by the ongoing economic slowdown.

Who decides how to spend these federal funds?

Initially Gov. Tate Reeves insisted he had sole spending authority of stimulus funds, but the Mississippi Legislature recently returned to the Capitol to pass legislation that gives them control of how to spend these funds. The governor will be involved in decision-making, but ultimately it’s lawmakers who will allocate the money

What is the Legislature going to do with this $1.25 billion?

Legislative leaders are still working out how exactly to dole out these funds, but have said priorities include helping small businesses, expanding broadband access and distance learning for schools. Other key focus areas are helping hospitals recover from the financial pressure that comes with coronavirus costs and lost revenue, and helping to offset costs cities and counties have incurred because of the pandemic.

Is that $1.25 billion different from the Paycheck Protection Program (PPP) funds that Congress appropriated?

Yes. The CARES Act contains various programs created to address problems caused by COVID-19. Businesses, presumably small businesses, can apply for loans through the federal PPP to continue to pay their employees and to pay other obligations, such as rent and utilities. If the loans are used as intended, they are supposed to be forgiven. The small business program the state Legislature is working on is intended first to provide grants to small businesses that for various reasons did not receive aid through the federal PPP. Many smaller businesses were not able to get help through the PPP. Mississippi companies that did get help through the PPP also can receive a grant  through the state program, but the first priority will be the companies that did not receive PPP funding.

Can Mississippi small businesses expect financial assistance from the Legislature?

Yes. The Legislature is in session this week to create a grant program for small businesses in Mississippi. Details are not finalized yet, but they are expected to put $100 million of those federal funds into a bill that will allow small businesses in the state to receive relief monies.

Will what the Mississippi Legislature does affect other programs in the CARES Act?

No. As stated, the CARES Act includes various programs. For instance, the enhanced unemployment benefits ($600 per week) provided through CARES Act will not be impacted by action of the Mississippi Legislature, other than perhaps trying to pass legislation to make the Employment Security Agency more efficient in responding to unemployment claims.

What, if anything, is the Legislature doing to address the problems that Mississippians are experiencing getting through to the state unemployment office?

Last week the Senate Economic and Workforce Development Committee held a hearing for Jackie Turner, executive director of the state Department of Employment Security to testify about her agency’s work concerning unemployment benefits. Senators acknowledged the department’s problem with phone line blockages and failure to deliver benefits in a timely fashion. Lawmakers say they are studying the issue to see if legislative action needs to be made, but no action has been taken so far.

Will the Legislature before it adjourns finish its work other than that related to the coronavirus?

Yes. Under the original calendar, the 2020 legislative session is supposed to be finished — sine die as it is called. But when the Legislature recessed on March 18 because of safety concerns related to the coronavirus, all deadlines were pushed back so that the process  essentially would resume when lawmakers returned where it was left off. The new deadlines are still being worked out, but essentially the budget will be completed sometimes in June before the new budget year begins on July 1. The Legislature also plans to take up some bills in the coming weeks that were under consideration before the coronavirus hit. But it is safe to assume that they will take up less bills that they would have if the coronavirus had not hit.