Legislature redirects COVID-19 money, ends historically long 2020 session

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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.

Eric J. Shelton/Mississippi Today

Mississippi House Speaker Philip Gunn, left, and Lt. Gov. Delbert Hosemann

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.