Mississippi lawmakers considering small-business virus aid fund

Published 2:49 pm Friday, May 8, 2020

Mississippi lawmakers on Friday started talking about how the state should spend part of the $1.25 billion it is receiving in coronavirus relief money from the federal government.

Leaders said a priority would be helping small businesses that have had to shut down or severely curtail services because of government orders during the pandemic.

Senators debated putting at least $100 million into a fund to help businesses with 50 or fewer employees. Applications for aid would be handled by the Mississippi Development Authority, the state agency that promotes job creation.

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“Our intent is to give businesses that were impacted and have not received any federal assistance the first go,” said Senate Finance Committee Chairman Josh Harkins, a Republican from Brandon.

Legislative talks were happening a day after Republican Gov. Tate Reeves conceded that legislators could have a role in spending the federal money.

He and the Republican-controlled Legislature had clashed for more than a week, with House and Senate leaders pointing out that the Mississippi Constitution gives spending power to the Legislature and Reeves saying that a 40-year-old state law gives the governor some spending power during emergencies.

Lt. Gov. Delbert Hosemann and House Speaker Philip Gunn appeared with Reeves at a news conference Thursday to say they would all work together.

“They’ve assured me that they want what I want, which is to get this money to those people that need it,” Reeves said.

Mississippi, like other states, has seen a dramatic increase in claims for temporary unemployment benefits the past few weeks. The Mississippi Department of Employment Security has expanded its hours and brought in extra workers to process the claims, but many people have faced long waits to apply over the phone or online.

“The number one concern, complaint, frustration that I’ve heard from citizens is in the arena of unemployment,” Gunn said Friday.

The state Health Department said Friday that Mississippi — with a population of about 3 million — had at least 9,090 confirmed cases and 409 deaths from the coronavirus as of Thursday evening. That was an increase of 404 cases and 13 deaths reported the previous day.

The number of coronavirus 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 virus can cause severe symptoms and be fatal.

The Health Department said Friday that more than 80,900 coronavirus tests had been done in Mississippi as of Thursday. The department said at least 1,091 cases of the virus had been confirmed in long-term care facilities such as nursing homes, with at least 175 deaths from it in those facilities.

Mississippi remains under Reeves’ “safer at home” order until Monday morning. It requires medically vulnerable people to stay home and suggests that people work from their homes if possible.

Reeves’ new rules for restaurants and outdoor gatherings also took effect Thursday. Up to 20 people may gather in one place outdoors, an increase from the previous limit of 10. Restaurants are allowed to reopen their dining rooms and patios with limits on the numbers of customers; servers must wear masks.