The same day the fight over control of $1.25 billion in CARES Act relief funds for Mississippi appeared to end, giving the legislative branch a win, Mississippi suffered its greatest increase in confirmed cases of COVID-19 yet in one day. The intra-party hostilities came to a close before Mississippi State Department of Health reports from May 7 revealed 404 new cases of coronavirus disease across the state, for a total of 9,090. Thirteen additional deaths, three of them from postmortem investigations, bring the death toll to 409, as the Mississippi State Department of Health announced this morning.
On Thursday afternoon, state leadership held a joint press conference including Gov. Tate Reeves, Lt. Gov. Delbert Hosemann and House Speaker Philip Gunn, R-Clinton. The men announced an agreement between the legislative and executive branches of Mississippi’s government—in the Legislature’s favor.
“We don't have to agree on every single issue,” Reeves said, opening the conference with an olive branch. “As long as we agree that we're going to work hard for the people of our state.”
‘A Decision to Hit the Pause Button’
The governor’s tone was much different from his grim prognostications on display at earlier press events this week. He had accused Mississippi’s lawmakers of both parties conspiring to “steal” relief money and endangering lives. But facing a veto-proof override from a united legislative body, Reeves backed down.
The governor, like the legislative leadership flanking him at his Thursday afternoon press briefing, was the picture of measured tranquility. “We have made a decision to hit the pause button,” he said.
But “pause” is a relatively generous term. Under the agreement reached in a closed-door conversation at the governor’s mansion earlier this week, Reeves acknowledges the Legislature’s prerogative to appropriate the remaining $1.15 billion of CARES funds, not including the $100 million elevated to the governor’s emergency control before the battle began.
In exchange, lawmakers agreed to include the state’s chief executive in conversations about where the money ought to be spent—an arrangement never in question to begin with—and ordered a hold on Senate Bill 2772, passed near-unanimously last Friday.
But in spite of Reeves’ repeated insistence that the bill represented a change to state law that inherently proved his authority, there were no alterations in SB 2772 to the statutes that govern appropriations authority in the first place. The bill simply forced the CARES Act money into a budgetary fund solely the Legislature controls.
Now that SB 2772 is on hold, Reeves does not have to risk vetoing the transfer bill, nor must he fear the politically humiliating veto override that would likely follow.
Hosemann and Gunn, for their part, showed no interest in twisting the knife. “We're all here to work on solutions for Mississippians,” Hosemann said. “The conclusion that we have reached is that the Legislature will appropriate the dollars—in conjunction with the governor administering those dollars,” Gunn explained, mirroring the Legislature’s original framing of the debate.
Reeves did, however, admit to lingering worry about the speed, accuracy and fairness of the appropriations process, now that it is ceded to the Legislature.
“I remain concerned about those items,” Reeves told the Jackson Free Press. He added: “That is critically important. I was also convinced by our legislative leaders that they understand those concerns. And they are committed to addressing the issues quickly, promptly and within the guidance of the U.S. Department of Treasury.”
One thread remains: The contract the governor intended to award this week to a “third party administrator” to ensure the State spends the CARES Act funds in accordance with Treasury Department guidelines. Reeves said at yesterday’s press event that the contract had not been awarded, but argued that the need for third-party oversight still remained.
"A few weeks ago, (The U.S. Department of) Treasury changed the guidance on (the Stafford Act) three times in the last several weeks, and my guess is that they're going to change it many more times over the next seven months. That is why flexibility is critical. That is why pre-auditing the funds is critical. And so, are there different ways to skin that cat? I am sure that there is, and we're willing to listen and... determine a way forward where everyone is happy,” Reeves said.
Hosemann: $100 Million Going to Small Businesses
“We're also going to hold hearings today and tomorrow, working on legislation to transfer $100 million to small struggling businesses in Mississippi,” Hosemann said at the beginning of Thursday’s presser.
By this morning, those plans have taken form as the “2020 COVID-19 Mississippi Business Assistance Act.” The Act, in its current form in the Senate Appropriations Committee, would establish an administrative authority to dole out grants between $1,000 and $25,000 to small businesses in Mississippi, defined as businesses with less than 50 employees, worth less than $500,000, which do not derive income from passive investments.
Of the $100 million set aside from the new act, $15 million must be spent on minority-owned businesses. Additionally, the Act includes language that orders the transfer of any remaining funds to other state agencies, likely to prevent the threat Reeves warned of earlier in the week, in which funds appropriated for a specific purpose end up returned to the U.S. Department of Treasury, rather than a different use in the State of Mississippi.
State intern Julian Mills contributed to this report.
Read the JFP’s coverage of COVID-19 at jacksonfreepress.com/covid19. Get more details on preventive measures here. Read about announced closings and delays in Mississippi here. Read MEMA’s advice for a COVID-19 preparedness kit here.
Email information about closings and other vital related logistical details to [email protected].
Email state reporter Nick Judin, who is covering COVID-19 in Mississippi, at [email protected] and follow him on Twitter at @nickjudin. Seyma Bayram is covering the outbreak inside the capital city and in the criminal-justice system. Email her at [email protected] and follow her on Twitter at @seymabayram0.