Preserving the voice of the people

By STEVE WILSON,

A collision between Gov. Tate Reeves and the Mississippi Legislature is looming over how to spend $1.25 billion in federal funds related to COVID-19.

The Legislature met today and needed only a few hours to approve an amendment to an existing bill to take away spending authority for most of the federal funds from the governor.

The money stems from the Coronavirus Aid, Relief, and Economic Security (CARES) Act, which was passed by Congress in March and will provide $2.2 trillion for individuals and businesses to help in the wake of the COVID-19 pandemic.

The legislature is supposed to return on May 18 to finish the session that was interrupted in March, but legislative leaders claim that Reeves’ desire to appropriate the federal funds forced them to act.

“This is a setting a precedent and the way we proceed from now on,” said House Speaker Philip Gunn said about why the Legislature wants to have appropriation power over the CARES Act funds. “Our constitution is designed so that taxpayers, whose money this is, have a voice in how it is spent.”

Even if the governor vetoes the bill, the Legislature likely will have enough votes to override it.

Reeves said during his daily news briefing that using legislative process will impair the money getting to those who need it the most, such as small businesses in an urgent fashion. He also said he’ll have to read the bill before he makes a decision on whether to veto it.

“When you’re in the middle of a historic emergency, you have to have someone where the buck stops,” Reeves said. “I’ve been that person in this emergency and I don’t want the people that elected me to that office, even the people that voted against me, to not get what they need because we’re going to wait a week, we’re going to wait two weeks, talk about it in a month.

“We don’t have a week. We don’t have a month. The emergency is right now and is every single day.”

The bill surfaced as an amendment to Senate Bill 2772, a standard transfer bill that the Legislature passes every year to allow appropriators to shift money from different funds (such as the general fund and the budget contingency fund).

Legislative leaders say that the text of the CARES Act allocates the funds to the state, not to the governor directly.

“It’s not about politics. It’s about preserving the voice of the people,” said state Rep. Jason White, R-West, who is the speaker pro tempore. The bill passed in the House unanimously and passed in the Senate.

White said the bill wouldn’t touch any of the emergency powers for the governor to deal with tornadoes, hurricanes and other natural disasters.

“Those things are completely different,” White said. “The facts and the law in those cases are completely different.”

The amendment passed by both chambers attached to SB 2772 does several things:

· Removed $7.5 million from the budget contingency fund so those funds won’t mix with the $1.15 billion in federal funds the Legislature will appropriate.

· Moved the $1.15 billion from the Department of Finance and Administration’s CARES ACT COVID-19 fund to the budget contingency fund.

· The bill leaves $100 million in the DFA COVID-19 fund to be used for emergency situations at the discretion of the governor.