Lawmakers to return Thursday to discuss whether to shift federal coronavirus funds

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Eric J. Shelton/Mississippi Today

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.