After nine months in and out of the state Capitol due to the pandemic, the Mississippi Legislature this week shifted some federal COVID-19 relief money to landlords, farmers, hospitals and veterans, then ended the 2020 legislative session Friday.

House Speaker Philip Gunn likened managing the Legislative session — which saw a COVID-19 outbreak that included him and Lt. Gov. Delbert Hosemann getting infected — to “calling an audible at the line of scrimmage.”

“We balanced the budget, basically in the dark, after seeing a one-month loss in state revenue of $240 million,” said Hosemann, who also recounted his personal battle with the coronavirus, which left him so weak he could barely walk at one point. “… We’ve had quite a session.”

After battling with Gov. Tate Reeves over control of the money, the Legislature directed much of the spending of $1.25 billion in federal Coronavirus Aid, Relief and Economic Security (CARES) Act pandemic relief, including hundreds of millions in grants to small businesses and health care providers.

“We’ll be back in three months to tee it up again,” Gunn said of the 2021 legislative session set to start in January. Lawmakers have already begun the process of setting a roughly $6 billion budget for the coming year.

In its final two days of the session on Thursday and Friday, lawmakers redirected CARES Act money unspent from small business, hospital and other programs to new directives.

These include:

  • $20 million to a grant program for landlords who have lost money during a pandemic moratorium on evictions. If landlords accept funds through the program, the back rent for people who avoided eviction must be forgiven. The maximum amount a landlord can receive is $30,000. The grants will be administered by the Mississippi Development Authority.
  • $13 million for farmers. The grants, administered by the Department of Agriculture, will be capped at $3,000 per farmer.
  • $10 million in grants available to hospitals to improve intensive care units to help them battle the coronavirus.
  • $10 million available to state-run nursing homes for veterans to help them with the costs associated with the coronavirus.
  • $3.9 million available to 22 specialty hospitals, such as psychiatrist hospitals, for coronavirus-related expenses. The Legislature provided funds to the state’s more traditional hospitals earlier this year for the same purpose.
  • $10 million to the Wireless Communication Commission to improve communications among first responders. Legislators said the money will be used to solve problems that developed as patients were transported during the summer when various hospitals were at or near capacity because of the coronavirus.

Federal law mandates the CARES Act funds to states be expended by the end of the year. Funds not applied for and awarded by Dec. 15 will be directed to Mississippi’s Unemployment Trust Fund, which has been depleted because of the recession caused by the pandemic.

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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.

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.