The Mississippi Legislature reconvened today amid a fight over who should decide how to spend $1.25 billion in federal COVID-19 relief funds—the governor, with advice from a corporate-dominated committee he appointed with no public oversight, or the state’s elected legislators?
This afternoon, the Mississippi House voted unanimously to strip the governor’s power over the money. The Senate did, too, but with two votes against one member voting “present.”
Gov. Tate Reeves had claimed that he alone has authority to choose how to dole the money out.
“I’ve had a lot of Mississippians call me and text me and say that God puts people in places for a reason, and I will never stop fighting for the people of this state no matter what it takes,” Reeves said during a press conference on Thursday.
But along with Reeves, Mississippi voters put 122 representatives and senators in office during last year’s state elections, 119 of whom rejected the governor’s assertion that he can allocate CARES Act funds without legislative input.
The money is part of Congress’ $2 trillion CARES Act, the stimulus designed to combat the economic fallout of the novel coronavirus crisis. Congress designated $340 billion to help state and local governments across the country deal with the fallout. States can use the money to help with a range of COVID-19 response efforts in various areas, including infrastructure, public K-12 education, higher education, assistance for needy families, a looming rent crisis, child care and more.
Simmering Intra-party Battle
The Legislature’s fight with the executive branch highlights a simmering intra-party battle between Reeves, a Republican, and the State’s Republican-led House and Senate. By Thursday evening, legislative leaders already expected a majority of members to support efforts by House Speaker Philip Gunn and Lt. Gov. Delbert Hosemann, the Senate president, to curb Reeves’ attempts at unilaterally spending the money.
“God puts people in places for a reason.”
—Gov. Tate Reeves
Mississippi Sen. Chris McDaniel, a Jones County Republican, and Melanie Sojourner, an Adams County Republican, both voted against the legislation. McDaniel was still undecided, though, when he spoke to the Mississippi Free Press on Thursday afternoon. He said then that he was waiting to review the funds and see how they could be used before taking a position.
“I think we have to find ways to start the economy as soon as possible, and I think we under-estimate how dangerous a faltered economy can be in the long term, so I want to see the economy restarted as soon as possible with safety in mind, obviously,” the Ellisville senator said yesterday.
“The question in my mind is, how are these funds going to be spent, and are they going to be spent responsibly? Because we aren’t sure of all the conditions and data, I don’t know today exactly how I’m going to vote, but once I get all the data and facts in front of me, I’ll stand strong and fight for what I believe in.”
If Reeves had sole discretion over the funds, he would seek advice for spending the money from Restart Mississippi, a board he appointed to advise him on rebooting the economy. The board, which consists of a number of corporate executives and business leaders, includes an executive committee composed solely of white men, despite the fact that about African Americans make up 38% of Mississippians population and represent more than half of all deaths and novel coronavirus cases.
On Thursday, Reeves told members of the press that Restart Mississippi will not be subject to the Open Records Act, which requires both meetings and documents to be open to the public and the press, with advance notice for meetings.
“Those reports will be coming to me,” he said, adding that he “will certainly look, at the appropriate time, (at) making them available to all of our media folks.”
Gunn: No ‘Rule by One Man’
Reeves claims that letting the Legislature decide how to spend the money could result in emergency funds getting tied up for weeks or months. But in a press conference at the Capitol this morning with members of both parties behind him this morning, the lieutenant governor said that multiple state agencies have told him that they do not need the money immediately, but will need reimbursements later.
“We have had a disagreement with the executive branch. Should $1.25 billion be given to the executive without any input from the State?” Hosemann said. “Following the Constitution is real important. The rock that we hang on is the Constitution.”
Gunn said the legislators were there in “unity” and in agreement with the idea that the nation’s founders “did not give us rule by one man.”
“We reject the notion that government by the people cannot deal with emergencies,” Gunn said.
“Should $1.25 billion be given to the executive without any input from the State?” — Lt. Gov. Delbert Hosemann
On Thursday, Mississippi Senate Minority Leader Derrick Simmons, the upper chamber’s lead Democrat, said that he expects cross-party support for a bill to ensure the legislator has input.
“I think it’s bipartisan that the $1.25 billion coming to the state of Mississippi should be managed by the Legislature. I don’t think the Legislature wants to give up its authority to appropriate funds,” Simmons said.
Last night, Simmons sent a message to the Mississippi Free Press making his position clear: “As Senate Minority Leader, I fully support the appropriations authority of the Legislature,” he wrote. “It is through that constitutional authority that the rights of Mississippians are protected and they have input into and oversight of the way funds are spent.”
Reeves could attempt to veto the legislation. It only takes two-thirds of members in the House and Senate to override a veto. The Mississippi Legislature last overrode a governor’s veto 18 years ago under a Democratic-dominated Legislature and Democratic governor Ronnie Musgrove.
The Legislature suspended its session in mid-March due to the COVID-19 outbreak. Leaders had planned to resume on May 18, but suddenly called members back to Jackson yesterday as controversy erupted over control of CARES Act funding.
This story has been updated to reflect the Legislature’s afternoon vote to strip Gov. Reeves of authority over CARES Act funds.
The Mississippi Free Press has an interactive map showing diagnosed coronavirus cases across the state and one showing the number of ICU beds in counties across the state.