Legislature wins first skirmish in battle with governor over $1.25B in virus money

Published 9:44 pm Friday, May 1, 2020

Mississippi lawmakers returned to the Capitol on Friday and asserted their control in a power struggle with the governor over who has the authority 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.

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The House and Senate each met briefly and voted by wide bipartisan margins to pass the same bill. It puts most of the federal relief money into a fund that the Legislature controls. The governor would not lose all power: He would still need to agree to spending plans that lawmakers set, as he does with other parts of the state budget.

Reeves would not immediately say whether he will veto the proposal. But during his own news conference, the governor angrily said that legislators were tying the hands of people responding to the pandemic, including the state health officer and the state emergency management director.

“You care more about power than people,” Reeves said of lawmakers.

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

Reeves on Friday said spending the money on consultants would be a good investment. He said if federal relief money is mishandled, Mississippi might have to send some of the money back to the federal government. He said a third-party administrator could talk to the U.S. Treasury Department about legal or accounting questions.

“Some of us are relatively busy right now trying to do other things,” Reeves said.

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.

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.

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

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.