Mississippi House Speaker Philip Gunn, left, and Lt. Gov. Delbert Hosemann speak after Gov. Tate Reeves press conference in Jackson on Thursday, May 7, 2020.

The Mississippi Legislature will reconvene at 10 a.m. Thursday and is expected to remain in session Friday for what will be the last two days of the 2020 session, unless lawmakers opt to again extend the session.

Legislative sources, including House Pro-Tem Jason White, confirmed that lawmakers will reconvene Thursday to deal with funding issues related to the $1.25 billion the state received earlier this year in federal Coronavirus Aid, Relief and Economic Security (CARES) Act funds.

Federal law mandates that the CARES Act funds be spent by the end of the year. Earlier this year, the Legislature earmarked those funds in a number of areas, including grants to help small businesses impacted by COVID-19, expanding internet access and providing aid to health care providers.

One of the primary reasons the Legislature is returning, House Speaker Philip Gunn and other legislative leaders said in recent weeks, is to determine what funds have been spent and whether some of the funds might need to re-allocated to other programs.

For instance, not all of the $300 million allocated earlier this year for small business grants will not be spent.

Gunn said he expects the Legislature to keep things “focused, very narrow.”

“Every time we return, everybody wants us to do everything, those who didn’t get their bills passed want to try it again,” Gunn said last week. “I have talked with the lieutenant governor, and we are aware of some other issues out there, that are CARES related but don’t necessarily have to do with the expenditure of money. We are going to evaluate where we designated spending back in June, determine how many of those dollars have been spent and do we want to move some of those dollars around, to get the maximum return.”

Many of the programs had provisions diverting any funds not spent by late in the year to the state’s Unemployment Trust Fund, which has been depleted as the number of the state’s unemployed skyrocketed during the coronavirus.

Jackie Turner, executive director of the Mississippi Employment Security Department, said the fund had $706 million in it in early March and was considered one of the most well funded unemployment trust funds in the nation. Now it is at $422.9 million, which includes $181 million the Legislature diverted to the program in June, Turner recently told legislative leaders.

The fund would be “extremely, dangerously low” if not for the infusion of funds from the Legislature earlier this year, Turner said. Taxes on businesses fund the trust fund and might have to be increased at some point to replenish the fund unless the Legislature diverts other sources of revenue. At the time the Legislature pumped $181 million in CARES Act funds into the trust fund earlier this year, Turner and Gov. Tate Reeves were advocating for the Legislature to divert $500 million into the program.

There is a possibility that lawmakers will look at other areas of need related to the coronavirus – such as a salary supplement for font-line health care providers.

The 2020 legislative session was scheduled to end in April before lawmakers opted to extend it to deal with coronavirus-related issues. Two legislative days remain on that extension, but legislators could by a two-thirds vote opt to provide themselves more days to meet, though, leaders have said that is not likely.

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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.

Geoff Pender serves as senior political reporter, working closely with Mississippi Today leadership on editorial strategy and investigations. Pender brings 30 years of political and government reporting experience to Mississippi Today. He was political and investigative editor at the Clarion Ledger, where he also penned a popular political column. He previously served as an investigative reporter and political editor at the Sun Herald, where he was a member of the Pulitzer Prize-winning team for Hurricane Katrina coverage. Originally from Florence, Mississippi, Pender is a journalism graduate of the University of Southern Mississippi and has received numerous awards throughout his career for reporting, columns and freedom of information efforts.