Lawmakers discuss indefinitely extending session as they return to Jackson after coronavirus recess

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Eric J. Shelton/Mississippi Today

Rep. Sonya Williams-Barnes works on her laptop in one of the hallways of the Capitol during legislative session in Jackson, Miss., May 7, 2020.

The on-again, off-again 2020 legislative session is scheduled to resume Tuesday and is not slated to end until July 12.

But leaders in both the House and Senate have held discussions about keeping the Legislature in session – so they could easily return to the Capitol to deal with COVID-19 issues – past the scheduled July 12 conclusion, sources told Mississippi Today.

The Legislature originally was scheduled to adjourn for the year in April, before the coronavirus pandemic reached Mississippi.

The state Constitution allows the Legislature to extend the session by 30 days at a time, granted two-thirds of both the House and the Senate vote to do so. Remaining in session indefinitely would allow Speaker Philip Gunn and Lt. Gov. Delbert Hosemann to call the Legislature back to work whenever they see fit. If the session officially ends, then it would take a special session called by Gov. Tate Reeves to allow the Legislature to meet and take up bills.

In the meantime, leaders say the session will resume where it left off on March 18 when legislators voted to recess because of health concerns related to the coronavirus.

“When the legislature returns… we plan to pick up right where we left off in March as well as continuing our work on coronavirus relief programs using the CARES Act funds,” Gunn said in a statement.

Since the March 18 recess, the Legislature has been in session for four days to deal with issues related to the $1.25 billion in federal funds the state received through to the Coronavirus Aid, Relief and Economic Security Act to help with costs related to fighting the COVID-19 pandemic. The fact that CARES funds must be appropriated by the end of the calendar year or they revert to the federal government might be another reason the Legislature would choose to remain in session.

On Tuesday, legislators plan to hear from State Economist Darrin Webb and Revenue Commissioner Herb Frierson. The economic downturn caused by the coronavirus has significantly impacted tax collections for both state and local governments, causing concern about possible budget cuts and the layoff of governmental employees.

“Mississippi’s economy severely slowed for two months, with some businesses closing altogether,” Hosemann said. “We need to understand the economic consequences of the shut down and COVID-19 as best we can before crafting a new budget.”

Legislative leaders already have sent correspondence to agencies asking them to look for cost-saving measures.

“Our ultimate goals will be to prioritize education, health care, and the safety of citizens,” Hosemann said.

A key question will be whether legislators will be able to provide a pay raise to public school teachers. A bill passed before the coronavirus recess by the Senate and pending in the House would provide essentially a $1,000 per year raise, costing about $75 million annually.

In recent days, Reeves has said he will ask legislators to appropriate some of the CARES Act funds for a work force training program for the 270,000 Mississippians who have filed for unemployment since the pandemic began.

Legislators also are considering using the funds to help improve internet access in rural areas, to help local governments with their costs battling the coronavirus, and to help hospitals.—