Lawmakers to governor: Not so fast, we have authority to allocate virus relief money, not you

Published 2:02 pm Friday, May 1, 2020

Mississippi lawmakers returned to the Capitol on Friday for a showdown with the governor over who has the power to spend $1.25 billion the state is receiving from the federal government for coronavirus relief.

Republicans who lead the House and Senate say the Mississippi Constitution gives spending authority to the Legislature. But, Republican Gov. Tate Reeves says a state law enacted 40 years ago gives the governor some spending power during emergencies.

“The system of government that we have is not a one-man-makes-the-decisions system,” House Speaker Philip Gunn said at a news conference Friday. Gunn was joined by Lt. Gov. Delbert Hosemann and a bipartisan group of lawmakers.

The legislative session had been on hold since mid-March because of the pandemic. As people entered the Capitol on Friday, their temperatures were taken and they were asked questions about whether they had been exposed to the coronavirus or experienced symptoms such as shortness of breath.

Mississippi is receiving $1.25 billion from a federal relief package already approved by Congress, with some of it designated for the Health Department. If more federal money is approved in the future, that could also be affected by the fight over spending power.

Reeves said Thursday that he does not want “politics and bureaucracy” to slow down the spending process.

“I don’t really give a damn who is in charge of this money,” Reeves said. “What I care about is the people who need it and they need it now. We can’t develop a system where the people who need the money cannot quickly access it.”

Hosemann said the dispute over spending power is urgent because the governor’s office was already seeking proposals from private entities to manage the relief funds, and the group chosen would be paid a portion of the money.

“You know what the real problem is? People can’t get their unemployment benefits,” Hosemann said.

The money at the center of the dispute is separate from the payment of unemployment benefits — an issue that has left thousands of people frustrated. Mississippi, like other states, has seen a dramatic increase in unemployment claims in recent weeks because of the pandemic. The Mississippi Department of Employment Security has expanded its hours and has brought in more people to handle applications for benefits, but people have experienced long delays and other difficulties in being able to apply.

Hosemann and Gunn had announced earlier this week that the Legislature would return to the Capitol on May 18, but plans changed because of the money fight. On Wednesday, they sent a letter to the acting director of the state Department of Finance and Administration telling her to put the $1.25 billion on hold.

Mississippi is not alone in clashes among top elected officials. In neighboring Louisiana, Republican state lawmakers are considering putting limits on Democratic Gov. John Bel Edwards’s emergency decision-making powers amid frustration over his extension of a stay-at-home order in one of the states hardest hit by the virus.

The Mississippi Health Department said Friday that the state had at least 7,212 confirmed cases and 281 deaths from the coronavirus as of Thursday evening. That was an increase of 397 cases and 20 deaths from the previous day. Mississippi’s population is about 3 million.

The number of infections is thought to be far higher because many people have not been tested, and studies suggest people can be infected with the virus without feeling sick. For most people, the coronavirus causes mild or moderate symptoms, such as fever and cough. For others, especially older adults and people with existing health problems, the highly contagious virus can cause severe symptoms and be fatal.

The Health Department said Friday at least 71,548 coronavirus tests had been done in Mississippi. The department said at least 825 cases of the virus had been confirmed in long-term care facilities such as nursing homes.

The governor’s “safer at home” order started Monday, replacing a stricter stay-at-home order that was in place for more than three weeks. The new order remains in effect until the morning of May 11.

Reeves eased business restrictions under the current order, allowing some to reopen with limits on how many customers may be present. In addition to letting more businesses reopen, it allows physicians to start offering some services that had been limited in recent weeks. Restaurants are still restricted to carry-out or delivery. Barber shops, salons, tattoo parlors and entertainment venues such as movie theaters remain closed. Gatherings of 10 or more people are still banned.